Combating Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace

combating pregnancy discrimination

Pregnancy discrimination is a real threat, even in first world countries such as the United States. While it may seem contradictory, pregnancy discrimination is one of the most blatant ways employers abuse their employees.

While there are laws in place to combat discrimination, employers often don’t abide by those laws. Elissa Strauss recently reported for CNN that, “Research from 2014 shows that beyond the 31,000 pregnancy discrimination charges, a far larger number of women were denied requests for simple accommodations such as more frequent breaks, time off for prenatal visits or less physically demanding duties.”

Thus, it’s vital that those in leadership and employees alike understand the laws that protect pregnant women and new moms from any form of workplace discrimination.

What Pregnancy Discrimination Looks Like

The first step in combating discrimination is understanding what it looks like. Without the crucial ability to assess whether or not the behavior of a supervisor or fellow employee counts as discrimination, we are unable to take action.

Katie McBeth for Fiscal Tiger writes, “Essentially, any negative comment, assumption, or unfair treatment of a pregnant employee (including unequal access to employee benefits, such as parental leave, or retaliation) due to their pregnancy or a related medical condition is a form of pregnancy discrimination.”

Thus, anything negative that happens to an employee because of their pregnancy is essentially a form of discrimination.

If a manager does not believe an employee can do their job anymore because of a pregnancy or childbirth-related modification and fires or demotes them, that is a form of discrimination.

Some companies refuse to hire personnel who are pregnant under the pretense that that employee will inevitably need to take leave. However, not hiring based on that fact is against the law.

Under the Affordable Care Act, a woman working at a company with at least 50 employees must be given the appropriate number of breaks to pump breast milk as well as a private space other than the bathroom to do so. If an employer fails to provide this, or goes so far as to fire that employee for taking the necessary breaks, the employer can be held liable.

While discrimination can take on a great many forms, the underlying reality will remain the same: an employer or supervisor is legally obligated to give pregnant women and new mothers every advantage and opportunity that is afforded others. Not only that, they’re required to make accommodations for relevant needs. If you see the contrary happening, you’re likely seeing a form of discrimination.


Why Education Matters

Recognizing discrimination is only half the battle; the other half is being able to recognize the actual legality of a situation or behavior. Having the understanding of what is legal and what isn’t is what grants agency to an individual.

According to Arizona State University, “Today, women make up nearly 50 percent of the U.S. workforce and 51 percent of corporate professionals. What is the root of this progress and what will lead to even further advancement for women in the workforce? Education.”

Education and knowledge are what separate a pregnant woman who has agency within the workplace and those who do not have it.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) outlines three acts that prevent pregnant women from being discriminated against in the workplace:

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA):

PDA ensures that anything related to an individual’s employment must be conducted exactly as if they were not pregnant. It is illegal for an employer to discriminate against a pregnant woman in relation to hiring, firing, promotions, health benefits, etc. Any terms of employment must be the same for her as it is for all other, non-pregnant employees.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):

If a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth renders a woman unable to complete her job as she was formerly able to, her employer must extend the same rights to her as are afforded to other temporarily disabled employees. If a woman has a disability related to her pregnancy, such as needing to modify the amount she lifts or stands, her employee must accommodate those needs.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA):

If an employee has been with their employer for 12 consecutive months and their employer has a specific number of employees, that employee is eligible for up to 12 weeks of leave to care for a new child. The child may be a newborn or adopted. Whether or not the leave is paid or unpaid depends largely on whether or not that employee has accumulated paid time off.

These laws are the crucial foundation from which a pregnant woman can stand on. Not only is it important on an individual level, but it also matters organization-wide. Many simply don’t understand the rights afforded to them and their coworkers. If you can, suggest that relevant materials and training is available at your place of work so that everyone is informed and aware. It is one of the best ways to promote a discrimination-free workplace.

What to Do When Discrimination Happens

If you believe the actions of your employer or supervisor are discriminatory, then you need to take the knowledge you have and apply it in your defense. While you should not be paranoid or unfairly biased, you should recognize that, statistically, you’re in a vulnerable position.

Darlena Cunha reports for The Atlantic, “Studies from 2004 and 2010 have shown that mothers start at a lower pay than their coworkers, make less money over time, and they receive raises and promotions less often than their colleagues—that is, when they’re kept around.”

The very nature of being pregnant and then re-entering the workforce means that there is a chance you’re more likely to be discriminated against than not only men but also childless women.

If you believe you are being discriminated against, it’s important to recognize that proving it is not an easy feat. Typically, videotaping or recording phone calls without disclosing is against the law. If there is no paper trail, then the evidence is circumstantial.

Additionally, while it is illegal for an employer to penalize someone for speaking out, it is a risk. In many cases, the employer will keep an employee on and then fire them months later for something seemingly unrelated because that employee is seen as a liability.

If behavior is questionable, do everything you can to create a paper trail. Keep a detailed log of what was said, when and where it was said, and who else was was present when it was said. If you can, make the conversation an email conversation so that it is automatically recorded.

The most crucial step in any case of discrimination is to file a claim with the EEOC.  Doing so is a requirement before one can file a lawsuit. While current employers are notified of the claim filed, future employers will not be.

Why It Matters

Given the fact that filing a claim can threaten your perceived credibility and your job stability, it may be tempting to believe that the easiest path forward is simply to ignore discrimination when it presents itself.

However, female professionals who move through their careers with dignity and character, and who refuse to accept less from others are those who will change the professional landscape.

Moms invest at the ground level in families, and by extension in the health and prosperity of the future society. When that same society fails to support them at the same core level, it’s failing itself.

It’s not only important that families have the jobs and resources to support themselves economically — children are expensive — but also that individuals and the people they surround themselves with, either by blood or otherwise, need to be seen as the foundational pieces of a healthy society that they absolutely are.

This guest post was authored by Brooke Faulkner

Brooke Faulkner is a writer, mom and adventurer in the Pacific Northwest. She spends her days pondering what makes a good leader.  And then dreaming up ways to teach these virtues to her sons, without getting groans and eye rolls in response.

Ms. Career Girl

Ms. Career Girl was started in 2008 to help ambitious young professional women figure out who they are, what they want and how to get it.