Study by FSU Business researchers finds workplace discrimination during pregnancy affects health of mothers and babies

June 25, 2020

Shanna R. Daniels

Although there are laws against pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, recent research from Florida State University’s College of Business finds that discrimination still occurs on a rather frequent basis and can have major consequences for the health of women and their babies.

Pregnancy discrimination is defined as unfavorable treatment of women at work due to pregnancy, childbirth or medical conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth. Pregnant women perceive discrimination when they experience subtly hostile behaviors such as social isolation, negative stereotyping and negative or rude interpersonal treatment. 

Samantha Paustian-Underdalh

The researchers from the FSU College of Business Department of Management studied pregnant working women and collected data across two studies, including 252 pregnant women over three points in time to examine their experiences in early pregnancy, late pregnancy and following the birth of their babies. The study’s FSU co-authors are assistant professors Shanna R. Daniels and Samantha Paustian-Underdahl and Pamela Perrewé, the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor and Haywood and Betty Taylor Eminent Scholar of Business Administration. 

The findings, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, confirm perceptions of pregnancy discrimination were associated with perceived stress and subsequent health outcomes for the mother and her baby following birth. Their study is the first to empirically examine the relationship between perceived pregnancy discrimination in the workplace and mother and baby health. 

Pamela Perrewe

“Not only did perceptions of pregnancy discrimination lead to perceived stress, but it also subsequently led to post-partum depression after the baby was born,” Daniels said. “We then collected additional data and found that perceptions of pregnancy discrimination led to perceived stress, which led to increased levels of postpartum depressive symptoms for the mothers, as well as lower birth weights, lower gestational ages and increased number of doctors’ visits for the babies. We feel these findings are very important as they highlight the role that workplace discrimination can play on mothers and their babies.” 

Perceived discrimination at work is often considered to be a job demand because negative treatment at work threatens a pregnant woman’s career trajectory and success, requiring physical and mental effort to manage. The authors found support for their hypotheses which suggested differential treatment due to pregnancy would have negative consequences for women’s stress given that perceived discrimination serves as a threat to women’s success and valued outcomes. 

“We believe our research sets the stage for the next decade of interdisciplinary research examining the effects organizational stressors on mothers’ perceived stress and psychological and physiological outcomes for mothers and their babies,” Paustian-Underdahl said. 

The findings suggest that employers and healthcare organizations may want to provide guidance and outreach to workplaces to help pregnant workers reduce stress via reduced pregnancy discrimination and enhanced work-family support for pregnant women. “Some steps may include training managers to be more family-supportive and less biased against expectant mothers,” Perrewé said. 

As for next steps of research in this area, Daniels said, “Future research on mothers’ perceived stress during pregnancy would benefit from examining more diverse samples of women to better understand the unique challenges they face in the workplace. Future research that includes more women of color could highlight how mothers’ stress is different and unique for women of color and for women from diverse backgrounds. Research indicates that African American women experience disproportionately high rates of low birth weight and preterm delivery, and by some accounts researchers argue that prenatal stress is an explanatory mechanism.” 


The article: 
Hackney, K.J., Daniels, S.R., Paustian-Underdahl, S., Perrewé, P.L., Mandeville, A., Eaton, A. (in press). Examining the effects of perceived pregnancy discrimination on mother and baby health. Journal of Applied Psychology.