Family Matters

Pregnant at Work? Why Your Job Could Be at Risk

Not all employers wish their pregnant employees well: the number of pregnancy-related discrimination charges have jumped by 35% in the past decade

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Everyone loves a pregnant woman, right? Not exactly. Her employer, for one, might not be so thrilled, according to experts who spoke at a federal hearing called Wednesday in Washington, D.C., by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

More than 30 years ago, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was enacted to protect pregnant women, who have increasingly chosen to work while pregnant. With my first two children, I reported to my newspaper job until the day before I gave birth; I delivered my third just a few hours after leaving work. In a country that doesn’t offer mandatory paid maternity leave, I didn’t want to burn any of my time off. But while I was busy churning out articles, plenty of women were being demoted or losing their jobs while pregnant.

In fact, the number of pregnancy-related discrimination charges have jumped by 35% in the past decade; 1 in 5 discrimination charges leveled by women is associated with pregnancy, according to the EEOC. Since 2001, the agency has handled 52,000 pregnancy cases that amounted to $150.5 million in damage. “Pregnancy discrimination persists in the 21st century workplace, unnecessarily depriving women of the means to support their families,” said Jacqueline Berrien, chairwoman of the EEOC, which is inviting the public to submit comments through the end of the month on pregnancy discrimination in the workplace at commissionmeetingcomments@eeoc.gov.

Now consider that women comprise 47% of this country’s workforce and are the primary — or co-primary — earners in nearly two-thirds of families, and you can see why getting fired because you want to expand your family could present a multifaceted problem. This is why, Judith Lichtman, senior adviser for the National Partnership for Women & Families, told the commission, “women cannot afford to lose their jobs or income due to pregnancy or childbirth.”

(MORE: ‘The Pregnancy Project’: Why One Girl Decided to Fake Her Baby Bump)

Yet panelists offered numerous instances of discrimination: harassment and hostility on the part of employers, decreased hours, forced unpaid leave. Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, told of a pregnant employee who wasn’t allowed to alter her uniform to accommodate her growing belly; instead, she was made to go on leave when she could no longer squeeze into it. And women aren’t the only ones being impacted: men who’ve requested leave for caregiving reasons report being penalized because caring for family members — babies or otherwise — is considered women’s work.

Perhaps those most affected are those who can least weather job loss: low-wage workers in the services industry, where work schedules can be inflexible or completely unpredictable.

Once women give birth, the discrimination continues in the form of the “motherhood wage penalty” of up to 5% per child — even after controlling for education and experience. “Motherhood constitutes a significant risk factor for poverty,” said Stephen Benard, a sociologist at Indiana University, who noted that “the gender gap in wages may be primarily a motherhood gap.”

(MORE: Study: Why Maternity Leave Is Important)

Is there anything that can be done? Better enforcement of existing laws and enhanced guidance to employers on how to comply could help. And the EEOC was urged to establish a task force made up of the EEOC and members of the U.S. Department of Labor, the Department of Justice and the Office of Personnel Management to further examine the issue. Will that suddenly change things for the better? Unlikely, but it’s worth a shot. As Lichtman observed, “Working women, caregivers and their families depend on the guarantee of equal opportunity in the workplace.” And yet, she noted, “The discrimination faced by pregnant workers and caregivers has persisted for decades, despite the laws and court decisions that sought to root out such discrimination long ago.”

The elusive work-life balance remains a work in progress.

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