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Career Hacker: Pregnant and working ... in IT

November 04, 2014

Apple and Facebook recently announced a huge perk for their female employees—and unintentionally sent a message many people found troubling. The tech companies offered to pay up to $20,000 to freeze the eggs of employees who wished to delay childbearing. While some women embraced this as the ultimate freedom to pursue both career and parenthood dreams, many observers argue it set an expectation that female employees will delay starting families. 

The perk—probably intended generously—may have struck a nerve because of the reputation of the technology industry, which many consider exceptionally unfriendly to families. Long hours and a male-dominated culture combine to make many IT positions difficult for parents who wish to balance a personal life with work.

So how do you survive—and thrive—as a pregnant woman working in IT? 

What to say (and when to say it)

For women who have succeeded in IT by disguising themselves as “one of the guys,” pregnancy blows the lid off that cover. And for the many who follow the “work twice as hard as a man” mantra, the (short-lived) physical limitations of pregnancy come as a real shock.

First, the first trimester of pregnancy is astonishingly difficult. Intense nausea (which hits three-quarters of women) and an almost irresistible urge to sleep make it nearly impossible to focus intensely on work. And society’s mandate to delay telling coworkers until the second trimester compounds this problem, because women generally experience the misery in secret. Have to leave a meeting to vomit or fall asleep at your desk (which nearly every pregnant women I know has done)? Without a reasonable explanation, your boss may think you’re hung-over or simply slacking off.

The best advice I can give is not to let the societal superstition about telling people about your pregnancy "too soon" hold you back from sharing. Coming clean with your boss early is respectful and may earn you a little latitude. It's possible to maintain full productivity if your boss can support a few small concessions.

Of course, you may have other reasons for keeping your pregnancy a secret. Many people sit on the news because the high risk of early miscarriage—estimated to be around 25 percent—may make it a moot point, and they’re scared of alerting their supervisors of their wish to conceive, fearing negative consequences such as not being considered for a promotion or to lead a big project. In that case, staying mum and looking for a less toxic workplace may be a better bet. As an IT professional, you have excellent options for finding new work. You may want to explore IT contracting, which generally provides a high level of freedom and excellent pay.

Coping with limitations

Most of the physical limitations of pregnancy occur between weeks six and 12, when women experience the peak of nausea, vomiting and fatigue. Women who tell their bosses might reasonably expect some flexibility during this time in order to maintain their level of productivity.

  • Many women find the ability to work from home sometimes, allowing them to sleep in and take lunchtime naps, is enough to keep them near peak performance.
  • Taking the occasional sick day—now is no time for hoarding—can also keep you on track. The worst strategy is to struggle through each day only to rack up an insurmountable fatigue debt and watch your productivity slip away.
  • Using your lunch hour for naps. Book a conference room or sneak off to your car if you must, but a half-hour nap may revive you.

A game plan for work and coworkers

Your coworkers want to know you won’t leave them high and dry during your leave. So let them know you have a plan for making the transition as smooth as possible. Formally documenting your work and processes—something everyone should do anyway—will help your coworkers immensely. Start early, because documenting can be very time-consuming. Also, circulating your document early allows time for questions.

You might also build in some time for your coworkers to shadow you. Finally, if your company plans to hire a contractor to replace you during your absence, offer to help screen candidates.

The important thing to remember (and possibly remind your coworkers of) is, unlike with most terminations or emergencies, you and your team have a long time to prepare for your absence. Shifting major projects in the work calendar and rebalancing priorities should be enough to ensure coworkers don’t have to shoulder too a difficult burden in your absence.

Maternity leave

Whether you have the right to take protected maternity leave depends on a number of factors. The most general include:

  • You have worked for your employer for a minimum of a year by the time you take leave (or approximately enough hours to make up a year)
  • The employer has 50 or more workers within 75 miles of your location, or is a public sector employer or elementary/secondary school of any size

Your company may still offer family leave even if not required by law, and your state may offer a more comprehensive plan (for instance, Washington, D.C., mandates 16 weeks of leave instead of the federally mandated 12).

You may be tempted to promise you’ll come back early from leave. Don’t do it! The intense sleep deprivation newborns cause makes it very difficult to recover from the physical strain of childbirth. You also won’t know how you’ll feel about leaving the baby. Unless money is a concern, set expectations early that you’ll take full maternity leave—you can always surprise your boss later with the news that you can return early.

A final hint

Finally, if you plan to pay for childcare, look into a dependent care flexible spending account before you go on leave (it will be too late when you return). This can save you a bundle by letting you use pre-tax dollars to pay for childcare.

Read about real women working in tech and IT

What it’s Like to Be the First Pregnant Woman at a Startup

Tech Career Advice From Google’s Women

Also, read What it takes to be a successful woman in IT and Career Hacker: Advancing your IT career.

Lisa Dare is a marketing writer for TEKsystems who enjoys learning about IT from some of the smartest folks in tech. She frequently blogs about IT career advice and the lighter side of tech, and on her off days loves to kayak and play with her toddler son.

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