When it came time to tell my manager about my pregnancy, I worried. I knew my explanations that I wasn't pregnant during interviews or I had found out after accepting their offer wouldn't matter. She'd just think of me as a risk.
I knew it meant I would have to work harder in a “man's profession.” I just didn't understand how my status as a new mother would affect their expectations of me as a professional. I also didn't realize how my race would play into other people's perceptions of me on the job..
My department had been looking for an industrial engineer for some time. In me, they found a combination of technical expertise and talent with group work.
When they learned I'd be out for a while on maternity leave, they were understandably disappointed.They asked daily questions like, “How long do you think you'll be out?” and “You don't have a lot of time accrued, do you?”
The questions became so frequent that I made up canned responses. I'd say, “Oh, not long at all,” or “I'm not sure yet,” just to avoid these incredibly personal conversations.
As folks scrambled to cover me in my absence, I found my work being hijacked and disregarded as others deemed this a great opportunity to increase their status.
After I returned from a ten-week maternity leave (extended from six weeks due to medical complications), I realized my manager planned to exploit my story and background. My life would prove to others their problems weren't insurmountable.
The day I returned, my manager called me into a meeting. She explained that my peers would be “watching” me.
She said, “Perception is everything at this company. What people think about you really matters.” So, she, a white woman, instructed me on how to not give off the wrong impression to others in the office.
She said I shouldn't take regular breaks or expect to have any vacations in the coming weeks. I should reduce my phone and personal time and be extremely responsive to any email, voicemail or Blackberry messages I got, because people might think I was “not committed” to the job otherwise.
I obliged. I made sure to contort myself every day for fear of losing my job to layoffs. I didn't want to risk having no way to financially support my family.
My workload increased. My manager stretched every request farther than I suggested. Every due date seemed to shrink for me, while my peers' deadlines remained the same or became more lenient.
Shortly after returning, my assistant's schedule changed. I needed an experienced, reliable new person. I made recommendations. I detailed every skill necessary to find success in such a demanding office. Yet, instead of choosing from my recommended candidates, my manager offered me someone she thought could "learn a thing or two" from me.
When my new assistant struggled with the role, my manager said she wanted to show "If Jennifer can do it, you have no excuse."
She told me since I had an infant and prior medical issues yet still accomplished so much, other moms and women in the department would be motivated. Soon, my new assistant quit, and I had to fill the gap.
At that point, I realized what she meant when she emphasized the importance of "perception." Because of my prior pregnancy and likely my race, given that I was the only person of color on the team and the only black woman in the department, people thought that I was less dedicated to my job. In an effort to disprove this unfounded judgment (a completely unjustifiable one given my performance), my manager wanted to make me an example.
She saw me as an opportunity. She thought it was my duty to repair other people's mistaken perceptions about me.
I struggled for a few years in the role as the expectations of me steadily increased. I was "promoted" without pay and given more responsibility. The management staff thought my skill set could really "innovate" in my new area of focus.
Meanwhile, I found myself further isolated from my peers and stretched so far beyond my physical and mental limits that I developed anxiety, migraines, and other physical evidence of my stress.
In the end, the only solution for me: moving out of corporate America and into entrepreneurship and academia. Sadly, though, for many women, especially women of color, leaving the corporate workforce simply isn't an option.
I later found out my job was split into two people, a request I had made at least five years earlier. Of course, they told me, "Oh, you can handle it." If nothing else, this experience taught me that I can certainly handle it, but I shouldn't have to. No one should.
Working women and mothers of color aren't obligated to fight negative perceptions. Employers should be doing the heavy-lifting where "examples" are concerned.
More from living