Perceived Discrimination, Real Stress
By Justin Walker
Kaylee Hackney was initially excited when she discovered she was pregnant. The joy of expanding her family, however, was quickly overshadowed with stress. Hackney already had plenty of that in her life as a PhD student at Florida State University between classes and writing her dissertation. Now she was worried about how her pregnancy would impact her working relationships with professors.
“I was scared to death to tell anybody because I did not know if they would push me out of the program because they did not think I was serious anymore about doing a PhD,” Hackney, assistant professor of Management, said. “It was not that anybody had done anything. It was just that I had worked it up in my head so much.”
Pregnancy discrimination has been illegal in the United States since 1978, Hackney said, but that has not stopped expectant mothers from perceiving workplace discrimination. These experiences lead to added stress, which has been proven to negatively impact the mother’s health. But Hackney’s own experience had her questioning how the stress from discrimination—even if only perceived—can impact the baby’s health as well.
This inquiry led to “Examining the Effects of Perceived Pregnancy Discrimination on Mother and Baby Health,” published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, which Hackney coauthored with Ashley Mandeville of Florida Gulf Coast University, Asia A. Eaton of Florida International University and Shanna R. Daniels, Samantha C. Paustian-Underdahl and Pamela L. Perrew of Florida State University.
The team looked at data associated with employed pregnant women in the third trimester. While there were a few respondents earlier in their pregnancy, it was important to have expectant mothers whose managers and coworkers knew about their situation, Hackney said. In the initial study, women were sent two surveys: the first gauging perceived pregnancy discrimination and stress and the second—distributed a couple weeks after the due date—collecting health outcomes for both mother and baby. The final sample consisted of 53 respondents.
A second study was conducted to examine the implications of perceived pregnancy discrimination and stress on the babies’ health. This included an additional survey sent out three weeks before the initial survey from the first study. This resulted in two surveys collected during the pregnancy and a final one a few weeks after the due date. The team recorded 199 respondents to the second study.
“For the mom, we were primarily interested in her postpartum depressive symptoms,” Hackney said. “The baby’s health focused on the number of doctor’s visits, gestational age and their birth weight.”
Hackney and the team discovered that not only did the stress caused by perceived pregnancy discrimination negatively impact the mother’s health but the baby’s as well.
These findings were alarming to Hackney, but the implications from this study could go a long way to making lasting change in the workplace, she said. Communication between manager and employee is critical in these situations. Some managers may take the initiative to help their employee without consulting them first and these actions may come across as the manager doubting the employee’s abilities. Having a discussion before changes are made could prevent any stress or negative feelings for the mother-to-be.
“I think the big takeaway is that the workplace has a pretty far-reaching impact on pregnant employees,” she said. “Pregnancy discrimination happens and just because it has been made illegal does not mean that we have done our job and we can wash our hands of it. This study highlights the importance of providing or creating a supportive culture around family building.”