STOP THE PRESSES. Pregnancy is threatening to bring American business to a halt. This is apparently so serious a matter that The Wall Street Journal found it the most important thing going on in American business this past Monday and made it the lead story of the entire newspaper. The headlines, sounding like something out of an old Saturday Night Live script, were apocalyptic enough to jolt every red-blooded American businessman awake over his coffee. "Firms Are Disrupted by Wave of Pregnancy at the Manager Level, After-30 Motherhood Snags Debenture Offer, Clouds Ratings of TV News Show."
That just goes to show what happens when you hire women. After all, clouding the ratings of a TV news show is one thing, but snagging a debenture offer -- whatever that is -- is quite another.
Well, it turns out that a debenture offer is sort of like a bond offer except that in the case of a debenture offer it is convertible into stock. It seems that in Los Angeles, whence this story originated, there was a female bank vice president who had a premature baby the day after the bank decided to go ahead with a $100 million-debenture offer. It was her job to coordinate the details of the offer, said The Journal, which quotes another bank vice president as saying her childbirth "'couldn't have happened at a worse time for the bank. Things got frantic for several days.'" Says The Journal: "Attorneys from other departments and other executives helped out in [her] absence. She hadn't had time to brief her planned replacement. But thanks to a lot of long hours and hard work, the offer went off as planned." The offer went off, in other words, just as it would have if a male executive had had a heart attack.
Between that example and a handful of anecdotes about other pregnant middle managers and some quotes from management consultants who don't have any numbers to back up their impressions, The Journal drew a portrait of women in business that will warm the heart of every unreconstructed corporate m.c.p. "In cities like Los Angeles, Washington, and New York, it seems that 'almost every married woman executive in her 30s is either pregnant or planning to be,'" The Journal quotes an executive recruiter as saying. And a Los Angeles consultant says this is "causing some turmoil at companies where a larger number of women in their 30s have made their way into important positions . . . All across the U.S., corporations have had to shift managers and other employes to take the place of women on maternity leave . . . Colleagues of pregnant women in small companies or offices have often seen their workloads swell. And many executives and supervisors have had to burn the midnight oil to take up the slack while women executives are on leave to have their babies," says The Journal.
You get the picture. Even professional women will succumb to the mothering urge and other employes [read men] will be excessively burdened because of her. But The Journal, ever quick to spot a trend, has been a little trendier than usual in this particular piece.
In an article uncharacteristically unburdened by statistics, there was one figure that if anything illustrates how infinitesimal the impact of pregnant women in the work force actually is. According to The Journal, the number of women over 30 who are having children has not quite doubled in the past eight years from 57,000 to 104,000. What The Journal doesn't mention, and what puts this in some kind of perspective, is that out of a female work force of more than 44 million, there were 10,861,000 women between the ages of 30 and 39 working as of May 1981. Even if all of the 104,000 women who had babies were working, which is certainly not the case, we are dealing with a phenomenon affecting .0095 percent of those working women in their 30s and .0023 percent of the entire female work force. And if we were to look at the nubmers of those pregnant women who are in the middle management or top management jobs, that figure would vanish right off the screen. If this is disrupting American business, then American business is in a lot of trouble.
"Less than 3 percent of the women in corporations make over $25,000 a year," says Alexis Herman, head of the Labor Department Women's Bureau under President Jimmy Carter. "It couldn't do that much damage if every woman got pregnant . . . I just wish the problem were of the proportion and magnitude the article suggests. Unfortunately, it is not."
"The fact that some women have gotten pregnant makes headlines," says author and management consultant Natasha Josefowitz. "If 30 men quit work and decided to go around the world on a sailboat, it would never make The Wall Street Journal saying most men are quitting their jobs and going around the world."
To say that pregnancy cannot be having much impact on corporate life now is not to say it might not in the future. There is merit in looking ahead at the problem and in divising shared parental leaves and ways for executives to work at home and other approaches.
But if articles such as the one in The Journal keep appearing, there won't be much need to plan ahead. The logical conclusion of that piece was not that there was an intriguing social phenomenon to be dealt with in the future, but that hiring women executives is tantamount to hiring a major pain in the neck.