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Coming to Terms : Pregnant Executives Encounter Special Difficulties

November 09, 1986|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

When Danielle Werts of Burroughs Inc. in Orange recently met an important client for the first time, she expected him to shake her hand. He didn't.

He went straight for her abdomen, which was beginning to swell with the baby she is due to deliver in January.

"My mouth just dropped open," recalled Werts, 30, a district manager of sales. She stood dumbfounded as a virtual stranger proceeded to rub her stomach.

"All I could say was, 'Um, um, um,' " she said. "This was one of my best customers. What could I do?"

Such, a growing number of women are finding, is pregnancy in the management ranks. Treading in unexplored territory, they happen upon unmarked pitfalls such as outmoded attitudes and awkward behavior in the struggle to catch up with a new reality.

Uninvited physical intimacy is only one of the problems faced by the sort of woman who may well go into labor at her desk, who makes business calls from the maternity ward and returns to work in a matter of weeks or even days. She faces a real struggle in gaining acceptance from clients and co-workers in a situation for which precedents--not to mention rules of etiquette--have not been established.

"It's tough enough being a woman in a man's world, but now you're a pregnant woman and you're perceived as much more weak and vulnerable," Kimberly Kelly-Isham, a pregnant manager of the housing relocation program with Coldwell Banker in Laguna Hills, said. "Somehow, it's a lot harder for someone to take a pregnant woman seriously."

But there are indications that the business world is having to do just that.

Women now make up nearly two-fifths of the nation's executive, administrative and managerial workers, according to Jill Houghton Emery of the Women's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Although management moms still con stitute a small minority of women giving birth, their numbers are rising, according to U.S. Census estimates.

In 1980, for instance, babies of management-level and professional women accounted for slightly more than 7% of the year's projected 3.2 million births. By contrast, babies of management-level and professional women accounted for nearly 10% of the projected 3.5 million births in 1985, the last year for which estimates are available.

Five or 10 years ago, women were just starting to move into executive positions, said Joan La Rosa, president of the Orange County chapter of Women in Business, a support group for female managers. "They were afraid that getting pregnant would jeopardize their promotions or strides being made by other women," she said. "They were afraid that management would say, 'See? We promote them, then they get pregnant and leave. ' "

Uncertainty Common

And although more managers are becoming pregnant, many are uncertain how their superiors will respond.

Kelly-Isham, the Coldwell Banker manager, did not tell her superiors until late in her third month of pregnancy, despite persistent morning sickness that interrupted meetings with clients.

"I'd excuse myself and rush out of my office," she said. "My secretary would come in and offer a cup of coffee. Then I'd come back in as though nothing had happened." And then there are the questions about the woman's plans. Despite advanced degrees and years of experience, management women say they must carry the burden of proof when it comes to demonstrating commitment to their work.

"Expect anxiety, fear and a little bit of hostility," warns Patricia Gwartney-Gibbs, a University of Oregon sociologist who has studied pregnancy's effect on a woman's earning capacity.

'Will You Quit?'

Claudia Hiatt agrees. "They all ask, 'Will you quit?' " said Hiatt, 28, an account executive with Hershey Communications in Santa Ana who is expecting her first baby in April.

Nancy Robb, a senior-level manager at the Lowell, Mass., headquarters of Wang Laboratories, said that 17 months ago when she told her boss that she was pregnant with her first child, he "was panicked that I might not be coming back." "He kept saying that he was going to visit me in the hospital and come to have lunch with me when I was on maternity leave. He wanted to let me know that he was going to get me back to work one way or another."

Some women feel that pregnancy raises unfair questions about more than their commitment to their work.

Co-workers "wonder, 'Can she be trusted?' 'Will she break down and cry in the board room?' " Kelly-Isham said. "I feel like they're questioning my competency and my capabilities."

There also may be pressure to relinquish responsibilities.

Work Given to Others

For instance, one of the managers interviewed for this story said she watched in frustration as two of the three programs she had been overseeing were handed over to colleagues shortly after she announced, at four months, her pregnancy--even though felt fit enough to continue with her duties.

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