Breaking the News Around ‘Pregnancy’ at Work

The blue Bangalore sky joins Kriti and Saeeda in harmony this morning. 

Kriti’s job as a senior manager at a mid-sized tech company is fulfilling. She is in her early thirties and has worked in this organisation for two years now. She has good projects, gets appreciated in team meetings, and enjoys a good working relationship with her reporting manager. 

A few kilometres away from Kriti, Saeeda checks into her office as the Head of Finance at an established conglomerate. In her late thirties, Saeeda has risen through the ranks meritoriously, having spent over a decade with the organisation. She is a role model for many women in her firm and rightly enjoys the respect of her peers and senior leadership. 

This is a big week for both. Kriti finds she is pregnant with her first child, and Saeeda, her second. A sudden, overwhelming anxiety accompanies the joy and delight they feel- one related to women’s maternity in the workplace.

Their fears are not unfounded.  A report published by Ashoka University revealed that 73% of Indian women exit their jobs after childbirth and struggle to rejoin the workforce. Among those who manage to return to work, 48% drop out within four months of reintegration. 

For today though, Kriti and Saeeda are worried about a more immediate problem at hand- the one about breaking the news of their pregnancy and the impending 6 months of maternity leave to their reporting managers. 

Breaking the news is tricky 

Thousands of women share Kriti and Saeeda’s anxiety. A white paper published by Sama in March 2024 documents returnship experiences for biological and adoptive mothers to their respective workplaces after maternity leave. The study, which interviewed many working women with over ten years of professional experience, found that cities, towns, and careers apart, all participating women feel a sense of accountability, stress, and discomfort when breaking the news to their managers, regardless of the manager’s gender.

Vandana, the OD and Talent head of a large manufacturing company, recalls feeling ‘almost apologetic’ while breaking the news to her male manager. Erin, a Partner Manager at a large technology company thought she ‘owed her manager (a woman) extra information and transparency’ since she was being considered for a sales-heavy role when she became pregnant. 

Vandana and Erin both felt anxious and insecure even though they shared a wonderful relationship with their reporting managers (both were older than them). Thankfully, their news was very well received. In Vandana’s case, small gestures from her manager, like having their pantry stocked with ice chips for her, or walking to her cabin instead of making her walk to his, touched her. In Erin’s case, she was given a well-deserved promotion while she was on maternity leave. 

Poonam, a senior team member at an impact-led start up, felt ‘very nervous’ about this chat. She recalls “the day I found out about my pregnancy, we were at a big training. I was my usual smiling self, mingling  with everybody,   but I knew I had to break this news somehow, and soon.” Eventually, she just told her manager (a man, two years younger), much like ripping a bandaid. Her first question to him was “Do I still have my job!?” Turns out he was kind and mature and worked out a good maternity leave experience for her. 

Unfortunately, not everyone’s story turns out as pleasantly. Arti, the HR leader of a Nutrition and Wellness company, was due for a promotion when she found she was pregnant. She was stumped when her (woman) manager asked if this was the right time for her to have a child. Smita, a Senior Manager (Product Experience) at a SAAS company only told her woman manager (and close friend) after successfully delivering a massive project where she led a team of 30. ‘I told her I was not going to give her excuses. I am not going to take days off and I am going to work just like this until I have the baby and after maternity leave too.’ Sadly, as she returned, she realised she was made redundant because of office politics and her manager did not support her in any way. 

For women undergoing fertility treatments like IVF, the anxiety around maternity-related conversations starts even earlier.

Shikha and Vineeta  worked in companies where they shared an excellent rapport with their managers. Despite the comfort and trust they felt at the workplace, disclosing their ongoing IVF treatment took them down different routes. While Shikha informed her manager as the treatment started, to get a little flexibility that could accommodate her injection schedule, Vineeta disclosed this only once she conceived. Despite the obvious mental and physical stress they both went through during the treatment, neither chose to confide in their managers and bore it bravely alone.  

For someone like Lubna who went through six IVF cycles over eight years, a best friend at work became her emotional support system. The silver lining ended there though for her.. When she finally conceived, she spoke directly to the organisation's Founder. She shares, “I had a direct one-on-one conversation about needing to work from home till 5 months into pregnancy as per gynaecologist's advice. However, they were unhappy and requested me to rethink and re-consult the gynaecologist and come to the office to work. I did not ask for any extra support or flexibility during the treatment phase but once I conceived I needed the support, which didn't work out.” She quit soon after.

Different workplaces, the same anxiety

Fatima was a television anchor when she found out about her pregnancy. Her job was to be in front of millions of viewers - which meant being subjected to a million opinions on how she looked daily. “I think I was just worried about having this entire conversation,” she says. I was on camera, and I had anxieties about what would happen if the good shows were taken away from me.” She was surprised when she finally told her (male) manager. “I thought he wouldn’t want to risk it. Maybe politely, he’d tell me to leave.” However, the manager welcomed the news, offered comfortable chairs between shots, put a podium in front of her, and ensured she didn’t have to wear high heels.

Ramya is a litigator in a High Court, your neighbourhood wonder woman, fighting for justice. She has her practice and two children. When she broke the news to her colleagues, they were wonderfully supportive and appropriately anxious about who would run the show. She put systems in place for that and was back on emails just 4 days after having her child. In her case, the judges are equivalent to ‘reporting managers’ in a court. The judges in the High Court were jovial and supportive but not in the Trial and District courts. They (mostly male judges) refused to move court dates or adjourn her cases for more than 10 days. But, when a male lawyer got unwell because of viral fever, his case dates were moved by a month. Ramya felt angered. “I mean, they are all fathers! How do they think children are raised?!” She also says that maternity is a strong reason why women often leave the field of litigation, thereby making it harder for other female litigators to see successful examples of those who make motherhood and litigation coexist. 

Views from ‘the other side of the fence’ 

HR heads of companies understand this struggle. They know that breaking the news - the anxiety around this conversation - is larger than the conversation itself. This is unsurprising since the insecurity that almost immediately descends for women once they know they will go on maternity leave is, “Will my role be there when I return?”

Mitali, the Vice President of HR for a software company warns managers against generalising women’s behaviours and physical challenges during pregnancy. There is an urgent need to cause a mental shift in managers and coworkers to accept that maternity is a normal part of life. Given that only now, and only a few organisations are speaking of menstrual leaves, pregnancy is still a taboo topic sometimes. 

Mitali, Arti and Vandana (all part of the Human Resources team often designing and delivering employee leave policies) are strong advocates of women building credibility above all else. At the end of the day, the quality of work that one has done in the past, the ownership and responsibility one shows for their work, how one lives the values of teamwork and leadership, and the rigour with which one meets deadlines help set the tone of the maternity leave - and the conversation about it. 

Recommendations for managers and expectant mothers

Sama’s white paper believes that the largest learning opportunity is for managers to be good listeners and have richer, empathy-led conversations. The women have thought a lot about how this conversation will go. They have planned for every scenario possible and heard horror stories from their friends and peers. 

For Managers:

  • During the conversation, avoid distractions or multitasking. This deserves your full attention.
  • Maintain eye contact! This is not an embarrassing thing to happen, but a moment to celebrate.
  •  Avoid making assumptions about women’s health or diminished abilities. Don’t count them out of challenging or travel-oriented tasks without asking.
  • Check with the employee what support can be offered to make this period comfortable for them. 

For Expectant Mothers:

  • Set aside uninterrupted 1-1 time with your manager for this conversation.
  • Employ a confident tone. Reassure your manager about your commitment to your career
  • Be straightforward about your health and your plans for the timing of the maternity leave.
  • Show preparedness around putting together a strong transition plan during the days of your maternity leave to support the team members taking up your role. 

Women are dealing with many assumptions about themselves at work - about appearances, skill set, intellectual abilities, and post returnship, of how good of a mother one is. The discourse around men seems to be ‘not all men’, and for women, ‘if one does it, everyone does it’. All the experiences across industries and parenthood here shout out for more

equity, empathy, and opportunity. This empathy begins with a single conversation around breaking the news. It's the most important beginning towards an inclusive and supportive workplace that allows women to thrive.


*All names in this article are changed.

Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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