With two-thirds of women with children under 18 in the workforce, the problem affects those at all levels, from executives to blue-collar workers. Today more than half of pregnant employees work into the final month of pregnancy. Some stay until their due date or until labor begins, practically going from desk to delivery room.
"Most of my friends worked 80 hours a week until the day they were ready to deliver," says Alice Kengla, a doctor in Los Angeles. "We're all physicians, so we just waddle over to Labor and Delivery when the water breaks."
Many women stay until the end because they need the paychecks. Others want to save their leave time to be with the baby. Still others fear being passed over for key projects or being "mommy-tracked" when they return. "In our culture, if you want the job you had before you left, you will be back as soon as you can," says Victoria Pericon, founder of SavvyMommy.com.
So deep is the concern that some women have sought Ms. Pericon's advice on how to hide their pregnancy longer. "They wanted to make sure they weren't passed over. Others needed a few more weeks before they told their boss."
James Ryan, spokesman for the EEOC, sees cases where employers make patronizing remarks supposedly based on an employee's well-being. "They'll say, 'We don't want you to hurt yourself.' They're trying to play doctor. It should be the employee and her physician who decide when it's time to quit work and when it's time to resume." Although a boss might mean well, he adds, such attitudes are discriminatory.
Blatant comments remain only part of the problem. A manager's silence can also affect the trajectory of women's careers – and salaries – during and after pregnancy, slowing their progress as they bump against a "maternal wall." Often, Calvert says, employers do not consider pregnant women or women with young children for promotion. "They just assume without asking that women won't want to travel, work longer hours, relocate – whatever the promotion involves."
Even when employers offer good provisions for maternity leave, new mothers sometimes struggle when they return.