Pregnant women worry about their professional reputation. (bigstockphoto)

When Laura Little was eight months pregnant, she woke at 3 a.m. to grade papers. She taught two management classes at Oklahoma State University while finishing her doctoral degree in organizational behavior. She wanted her colleagues to know, “I’m serious. Ignore the big belly.”

And she wondered: Why do I feel compelled to overcompensate?

Little, 40, now director of the Institute for Leadership Advancement at the University of Georgia, began researching this exact issue — the need to control one's image for job security. And in a study to be published next week in the Academy of Management Journal, she and other researchers found it's prevalent—and damaging—among expectant mothers.

Pregnant workers, dubbed in the paper “potentially stigmatized individuals,” often fear employers will start viewing them as distracted or less competent. “So, they go the extra mile,” said Little. “Some actually work harder than they did before.”

She points out added pressure drives risk of burnout in the long run. Companies that work to address the problem —even with something as simple as encouraging support from supervisors —could retain more talented workers, reduce costly turnover and avoid discrimination lawsuits.

Little and her co-authors surveyed pregnant employees across the country. Conversations with dozens of women revealed a ubiquitous insecurity: What will happen to my professional reputation?

Female workers frequently avoided asking for help or special accommodations, researchers found. High rank didn't quell worries: Entry level employees and managers expressed similar fears. Some hid their pregnancies for as long as possible.

Reported one woman, anonymous in the study: “I have this perception that as I become rounder, I’m going to become 'cuter,' and cuter is not professional. So [I have] a little mixed emotion about other people I work with noticing [that I’m pregnant]."

Said another: “I probably could have taken a few more sick days than I did, but I didn’t want them to start thinking, 'Oh, see—she can’t handle it.' So, there were definitely some days where I dragged myself into the office when I would have been much happier staying in bed all day long.”

About 600 survey respondents answered questions on a scale of one (strongly disagree) to five (strongly agree). The average response to the statement “I try not to ask for accommodation” was 4.23, the study found; “I try to get more done at work” drew an average of 4.25.

Most pregnant women in the United States go to work, a fairly new trend in the country’s family landscape. Only 44 percent of women expecting their first child in the early sixties held a job, according to Census Bureau data. That share rose to 67 percent by the late eighties, where it remains today.

Chart by Pew Research Center
Chart by Pew Research Center

Education skews results: 87 percent of women with a bachelor’s degree or higher clock in while pregnant with their first child, the Census Bureau's latest numbers show; just 28 percent of women without a high school diploma worked while pregnant with their first child.

Pregnant women nowadays also work much closer to their due dates, a Pew Research Center analysis found. In the sixties, most women expecting their first child stopped working more than a month before the birth. By the late 2000s, 82 percent kept working within one month of their first birth.

Chart by Pew Research Center
Chart by Pew Research Center

Though a growing belly in the workplace is no longer unusual, women quickly encounter financial burdens soon after they give birth.

Child-care expenses can exceed rent. Paid leave is rarely an option for low-income workers. And the gender wage gap swells when women become mothers: Moms earn up to 14 percent less than women who don't have children, a University of New Mexico study found.

So, the pressure to perform heightens, Little said. She recalls fighting fatigue, trying to draw attention away from her stomach as she delivered her dissertation. She wonders how severe complications — illness beyond the typical morning sickness — could have impacted her already exhausting balancing act.

Little now has two boys: 9-year-old Mac and 7-year-old Bo. Like millions of mothers, she still juggles work and family challenges.

Starting and raising a family is hard enough, she said, without image insecurities.

“If we can develop situations where women feel more supported in the workplace, they're more likely to stay in the workplace," she said. "Supervisors can reduce the concern by being open and supportive about an employee's pregnancy... Never make the assumption a pregnant woman won't work as hard."