How to deal with pregnancy discrimination within the workplace

If you’ve been overlooked for a promotion or you’ve been laid off because you were pregnant, you’re not alone. We look at some shocking stats, two brave women’s stories and what to do to protect yourself.

*Names have been changed to maintain confidentiality  

When litigation attorney Jessica A. announced to her boss that she was pregnant with her first child, he rolled his eyes and sighed. “It’s the beginning of the end,” he said. When she asked what he meant, he replied, “Once you start having babies, you’ll never be half as dedicated to your job as you used to be.” He didn’t even congratulate her.

Bowing down to company pressure, Jessica only took four weeks of maternity leave. She organized for her daughter to split her time between a family day care and her mother’s house so that she could put in long hours at the office. She ran herself ragged trying to keep up with the demands of a newborn and a grueling career. Yet when the time came for promotion to partnership, Jessica was passed over.

“I’m almost 100 percent certain that I would’ve made partner had I not had my daughter,” she says. “I’m still at the same firm, but I’m miserable. This only happened a few months ago and I haven’t figured out what my next move should be. I’m afraid to go to another firm and for the same thing to happen again. I’m honestly disgusted and so discouraged.”

Pregnancy discrimination is everywhere

Think cases like Jessica’s are isolated in 2018? Brace yourself. The New York Times recently reviewed countless court cases and interviewed dozens of women – and the results were shocking.

From the warehouse floors of retail giants to the swanky suites of the corporate world, incidents of pregnancy discrimination are ubiquitous. In fact, the Times discovered that the number of pregnancy discrimination claims received by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been steadily increasing for two decades and currently sits close to an all-time high.

Halfway through her second pregnancy last year, Kara L. lost her job at a major retail store after asking for more frequent breaks during her shift.

“I worked on my feet for up to nine hours a day as a cashier,” she says. “In my second trimester, I started to develop lower back pain and my doctor told me I needed to take more breaks at work. I asked my boss if I could split my total break time into several shorter ones, but he said that if he allowed me to do it then everyone would start asking. Three weeks later, I got fired. They blamed it on the fact that I’d been late for work a couple of times, but I wasn’t the only one. I knew it was because they thought of me as dead weight.”

Even when mothers-to-be manage to hang on to their jobs, they quickly fall behind their male colleagues when it comes to their earnings. In a landmark paper published in 2014, University of Massachusetts Amherst sociologist Michelle Budig revealed that women lose an average of 4 percent of their hourly wages for every child they have, with the loss ranging between 6 percent for low-wage workers to no loss at all for high earners.

Men, on the other hand, are rewarded for becoming fathers. Not only does their income increase by an average of 6 percent after they have a baby, but they’re more likely to receive call-backs and higher salary offers from prospective employers than equally qualified childless men.

How to protect yourself from pregnancy discrimination at work

The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) forbids employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating based on pregnancy when it comes to hiring, firing, layoffs, salary, promotions and any other term or condition of employment. If you’re unable to perform your regular duties due to a pregnancy-related medical condition, your employer owes you the same rights as any other temporarily disabled employee.

But as we’ve seen, many employers manage to get around these laws. Here are five steps you can take to protect yourself against pregnancy discrimination:

  1. Announce your pregnancy as soon as possible: Once you’ve officially announced your pregnancy, you’ll be covered by anti-discrimination laws and have a much easier time fighting back if your employer discriminates against you. But if your boss finds out before and fires or demotes you, they’ll be able to claim that it had nothing to do with your pregnancy because they were unaware of it.
  2. Inform your employer of pregnancy-related health conditions: If you’re suffering from a pregnancy condition such as gestational diabetes or preeclampsia, let your employer know right away. You’ll be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and you may be entitled to “reasonable accommodations” such as time off work for doctor’s appointments and more frequent breaks. If you don’t tell your boss and they dismiss you, you won’t have any recourse.
  3. Report discrimination to HR: If you feel that you’re the victim of pregnancy discrimination, report it in writing to the human resources department without delay. You’ll be protected by anti-retaliation law if your employer has 15 or more employees. But even if you’re not protected, at least you’ll have a record of your complaint if your employer fires you and you decide to pursue a wrongful termination lawsuit.
  4. Document every detail: Keep records of all your interactions with your boss and HR in relation to your pregnancy and incidents of discrimination. If you speak with them face-to-face, reiterate what was said in an email so that you have written records of all your exchanges. And if you’re fired, ask your employer to put the reasons for your termination in writing. All these details can help you prove your case.
  5. What to do if you’re the victim of pregnancy discrimination: If you’re dismissed or demoted while you’re pregnant or shortly after giving birth, you may wish to talk to an attorney about your rights and whether you have a solid employment discrimination case.But before going ahead, ask yourself whether you have it in you to take your employer to court – the process can take up to two years and be emotionally and financially draining. You may prefer to cut your losses and find a new job where you’ll (hopefully) feel valued and respected.