Earlier this year, ad exec Akvile DeFazio was roughly three months into her pregnancy when she decided to give clients a heads-up that she was expecting and due in August. The response was mostly positive, but the reaction of one client, who within a few days of hearing the news quickly parted ways with DeFazio’s small social media agency, Akvertise, made DeFazio and her husband think twice about publicly sharing news of her pregnancy.
“Since I own my own advertising agency, we didn’t want the news out there that I was pregnant, even though I’m very active on social media,” said DeFazio, president of Akvertise. “We didn’t want to have it impact business.”
Keeping the news a secret was stressful and disappointing for DeFazio. Instead of crowdsourcing advice on baby products or parenting advice on social media, she had to message people privately and then ask them to be discreet. She also changed her wardrobe, swapping out form-fitting clothes for loose tops that hid her belly while speaking at conferences. “If that instance with that client didn’t happen, I would’ve shared online, I would’ve worn what I wanted,” said DeFazio. “But that one reaction as soon as we found out, it really set the precedent this whole year.”
Advertising is known for its brutal hours and lack of work-life balance, which can be especially difficult to navigate for new parents. Many agencies have made an effort in recent years to increase parental leave to be at least three months and put policies in place to help ease the transition back into agency life. But when it comes to pregnancy, there can still be a stigma attached to being visibly pregnant in the office, as your body is a walking billboard that you’ll soon be out of the office on maternity leave.
Multiple agency sources say that pregnancy discrimination is not nearly as overt as it once was and that overall the experience of being pregnant in the ad industry has improved greatly. That said, pregnant women say they worry about when to tell their managers, what clients will think and fear missing out on big opportunities, often opting to wait until later in their pregnancy to share the news. At the same time, they say there’s a pressure — most say that it’s self-imposed — to keep working at the level they had been when before pregnancy, to keep traveling, take speaking gigs, be on-set all day and that it can be taxing.
“You’re haunted by ghosts of advertising’s past,” said Mona Gonzalez, managing director at Pereira O’Dell in New York. “When I was thinking about how and when to tell my team after I first became pregnant, a lot of those ghosts started coming up. I remember hearing from people like, ‘You do not talk about your pregnancy at work, you wait as long as humanly possible because it’s just going to be difficult once you tell people.’”
Keeping it a secret
Most women report improvements at advertising agencies, yet the industry can still improve.
“I believe [pregnancy discrimination] has gotten marginally better in that agencies have [parental leave] policies now, still minimal leave time, but at least there are policies,” said founder of The Agency Sherpa and former 4A’s president Nancy Hill. “That said, the work-hard-at-all-costs mentality of many agencies leaves the door wide open for individual discrimination and both microaggressions and overt ‘bullying.’”
That bullying can come in the form of snarky comments or unnecessary travel requests, said Hill.
Fear of bullying wasn’t behind freelance social media and content strategist Michelle LeBlanc’s decision to keep her 2017 pregnancy under wraps until she was 20 weeks along. At the time, LeBlanc was the president of the board of the Ad Club of Maine. A few months after she found out she was pregnant, the Ad Club was hosting its annual award show. LeBlanc didn’t want people to worry if she would be able to manage the show and her work so she hid her pregnancy until after the event.
“It was tricky,” said LeBlanc. “There’s obviously a lot of drinking at various events, so there was a lot of me pretending to drink and actually drinking seltzer or not letting people buy me drinks.”
Overall, women in advertising who have been pregnant say they spend a lot of mental energy not only trying to figure out when to tell people about their pregnancy but in general how much they will want to share with their coworkers.
Typically, pregnant women will alert their work that they are pregnant soon after the first trimester ends or after they are 12 weeks pregnant. At that time, the risk of miscarriage has likely declined and that can make it a much easier time for women to share that they are expecting. But that secret, especially for women who do miscarry, can make it harder to take the time and space needed to handle that trauma.
“While the first trimester is the most challenging for many women, we’re conditioned to keep it a secret, sustain our normal nausea-inducing commutes to work, be at our usual best despite what we’re going through,” wrote Ambika Pai, chief strategy officer at Mekanism, in an email. “I remember having a miscarriage early on a Monday morning. I had just started a new job and was meant to fly out to meet a client for the first time. I was wracked with guilt when I knew I couldn’t.”
Pai was back at work on Wednesday after her miscarriage. “This wasn’t forced upon me,” said Pai. “No one knew I was pregnant. I probably should’ve known myself and my body well enough to realize I needed more time, but without formalized policies that give women permission to take leave, many women won’t. As an industry we should consider flexing bereavement policies, allowing people to choose when and how to tap into them.”
At the 4A’s, much of the discussion around pregnancy and parental leave has been about the improvement the industry has undergone in recent years, said evp of talent, equity and inclusion Simon Fenwick. That said, what Fenwick does hear from pregnant women is that they still don’t want to mention they are pregnant out of fear of missing out and to avoid assumptions about what they are capable of.
“We hear stories of women who say, ‘I didn’t mention I was pregnant because it was obvious, because I didn’t want to be moved off an account,’” said Fenwick, adding that part of that fear comes from the industry’s shift from agency-of-record assignment to project work.
Women who’ve been pregnant while working in advertising said they maintained the hours, made sure to go to after-hours events, go on-set and continue to work as they had been previously. But once they were obviously pregnant, they were treated differently and left to prove that they were still able to do their jobs. While the discrimination isn’t as obvious as it once was, it still exists.
“It’s just like the subtle things, like you miss out on opportunities,” said LeBlanc. “Nobody wants to put the eight months pregnant woman in a new business pitch. Or having everybody, with relatively good intentions, they want to tread a little carefully around you when you come back. It involves having to really kind of do a campaign of being like, ‘No, I’m here are dedicated to doing this work and I’m not checked out.’”