World / Social Issues

Four decades after being banned, pregnancy discrimination persists in U.S.

AP, Bloomberg

For 41 years, U.S. federal law has banned pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. But stories tumbling out this past week show it is far from eradicated.

Prompted by presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s claim that she was forced out of a teaching job in 1971 because she was pregnant, scores of women have shared similar experiences on social media.

Police officers, academics, fast food workers, lawyers, flight attendants, administrative assistants and others say they hid pregnancies on the job or during interviews, faced demeaning comments and were demoted or even fired after revealing a pregnancy.

“All I know is I was 22 years old, I was six months pregnant, and the job that I had been promised for the next year was going to someone else,” Warren told CBS News. At campaign events, Warren cites the event as a key milestone in her life story, saying the principal of a New Jersey public school “showed me the door” after her first year when she became visibly pregnant.

After some raised doubts about Warren’s account — noting a 2007 interview in which she gave different reasons for leaving her job — many women said they accepted Warren’s explanation that she has grown more comfortable sharing the real reason she resigned from the school: because the principal hired someone else once Warren became pregnant.

“Pregnancy discrimination is real, and I believe Elizabeth Warren,” tweeted Dr. Diane Horvath, an obstetrician and gynecologist who works at Whole Woman’s Health, a clinic in Baltimore.

Horvath didn’t even trust her own profession when she was interviewing for a family planning fellowship five years ago. She hid her pregnancy for 26 weeks during the application process, buying multiple suits to hide her growing belly. “It was just the worry that I was going to be seen as less reliable because I was a parent,” she said. “There’s no good time to have a baby.”

Horvath knew she could fall back on her medical degree if she didn’t get the fellowship. But many women aren’t so lucky.

“The stakes are so much higher if people can’t get a job that will pay their rent and keep their kids from starving,” she said.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. In 1978, it was amended to forbid discrimination based on pregnancy in any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay and job assignments in companies with 15 or more employees.

The law is still evolving; a week ago, the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to decide if it also bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and transgender status.

Pregnant women have other protections on the job. Impairments from pregnancy, such as gestational diabetes, are considered disabilities covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and employers may have to offer accommodations for them.

But complaints about harassment and other violations are common. There were 2,790 cases alleging pregnancy discrimination filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2018. That doesn’t include cases filed with individual states, or cases that simply aren’t filed because proving discrimination can be tricky. Employers may rescind a promised job, for example, without specifying why.

“Employers have gotten much more discreet in acts of discrimination,” said Craig Barkacs, a law professor at the University of San Diego School of Business who successfully prosecuted one of the first cases of pregnancy discrimination in the U.S. in 1992.

Barkacs said the problem affects women broadly — even those who aren’t pregnant.

“At some psychological level, there’s a paradigm of what an efficient workplace is,” he said. “Women even potentially becoming pregnant disrupts that workflow.”

Barkacs thinks that is changing. More men and partners of pregnant women are taking parental leave, following high-profile examples like Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. That could make employers less likely to penalize pregnancy as a disruption, he said.

More comprehensive federal laws with tough sanctions would also help, he said. Some states require employers to provide unpaid leave and health care to women who are disabled by pregnancy, for example, but others don’t.

Sonya Rosenberg, a partner with Neil, Gerber and Eisenberg law firm in Chicago who trains companies on employment-related legal issues, said employers often have a short-sighted approach to pregnant employees.

“Pregnancy and childbirth take up a comparatively tiny amount of time in a woman’s overall career span,” she said. Companies that make accommodations for pregnant employees — and enforce those policies — will be more successful at retaining female talent.

But Horvath believes real change will only come when the U.S. adopts more comprehensive laws promoting parenthood, including paid leave and subsidized child care. Even with the current laws in place, she says, many pregnant women don’t have the time, energy or money to pursue a discrimination case in court.

“It’s never going to be written that you were fired for pregnancy,” she said. “It’s essentially unenforceable.”