Know Your Rights: Pregnancy Discrimination Is Illegal

Pregnancy discrimination hurts women, families, children, and even businesses who then miss out on opportunities to hire hard-working employees.

The two blue lines appeared a few days before I finished my master’s degree. Over the next few weeks there was a flurry of graduation celebrations, sending out resumes and cover letters, telling friends and family the good news, and trying to keep the nausea at bay.

I was excited, if not a bit nervous, for all of the changes that were happening in my life. The timing was nearly perfect, I thought. I had just finished my thesis defense without having to run out of the room in search of a trash can to vomit in, and also had plenty of time to find a job and get situated there before the baby was due.

And as luck would have it, I soon found a job for which I was perfectly qualified. Having spent my last year of school training undergraduates how to interview subjects on their drug and alcohol use, I found a posting looking for applicants to interview study participants about none other than their drug and alcohol use. It was perfect. If anything I was overqualified, but the economy was just beginning to revive itself and I was happy to take what I could find.

I sailed through the first interview, and at the very end I decided to act on the advice the career center gave me: I disclosed my pregnancy. “Shouldn’t be a problem at all,” my interviewer assured me.

The second round, however, was much different than the first. This interviewer asked me what town I lived in, a question or two about my background, and then spent the rest of the time grilling me on my pregnancy. She wanted to know when I was due, if I could guarantee that I would be able to attend a conference a week before my due date, why I wanted to apply for the job if I was pregnant, and even noted that I wasn’t the type of person she typically hires for this work.

A week later, I got an email informing me that I did not get the job.

Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978

In 1978, Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act which made it illegal to refuse to hire women who were or could become pregnant, as well as to deny job opportunities, deny promotions, fire, demote, or force women to stop working on the basis of pregnancy.

Nearly 40 years later, however, women are still being treated differently than other people with short term medical needs, solely because they are pregnant. Between 2010 and 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received 22,241 reports of pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. And this number only reflects cases that were filed – it doesn’t include women who didn’t file a complaint because they were afraid of retaliation, didn’t know their rights, or were simply too busy with a new baby on the way.

Pregnant women still face discrimination in the workforce

Being pregnant makes it harder for women to find work. Pregnant women are more likely to face interpersonal discrimination when applying for jobs, according to a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Researchers from Rice University found that women who were visibly pregnant and seeking work were met with more hostility – furrowed brows, rude treatments, or conversations ending prematurely – than non-pregnant women.

Working mothers are, on average, paid less than their male counterparts. And that’s only if they can get a job in the first place. Mothers in general are less likely to be hired than childfree women, and even if they do get the position, they’re offered a lower salary.

African American women face even more discrimination, accounting for 28.6 percent of EEOC pregnancy complaints, while making up only 14.3 percent of the female labor force. Women in low wage fields make up the majority of complaints, and suffer more from the loss of wages than their higher income counterparts.

Looking for work while pregnant

After receiving my rejection letter, I worked up the courage to send an email to the human resources department of the organization that had declined to hire me. In record time, I received a phone call from a flustered-sounding representative.

“Oh, you absolutely were not turned down for the position because of your pregnancy,” she tried to assure me. “It was because you don’t live in the town where the job is.”

This answer certainly surprised me. When I pointed out to her that not only did I live in that town, but it had been the first question of the interview while the rest focused on my pregnancy, she grew even more flustered. She told me that I should reapply, as she could tell from my resume that not only was I qualified, but the job would in fact be perfect for a new mother.

Because the interviewer who refused to hire me would be my supervisor, I decided against reapplying.

My belly kept growing, and being unemployed was an additional weight for me to carry through my pregnancy. I briefly considered taking legal action, but at the time I wasn’t familiar with the EEOC, and my primary focus was on finding a job and preparing for my new baby.

Eventually, I applied for another job. During the interview I held my breath, sucked in my belly the best I could, and prayed that the flowy top I picked out would disguise my secret. When I received the job offer, I told my boss that I was expecting and we discussed a plan for my start date, maternity leave, and a schedule that accommodated both our needs.

Three months after I had the baby, I was excited to return to my career and grateful to be working in an environment that valued me and my family.

Pregnant women deserve the same treatment

In 2004, President-Elect Donald Trump called pregnancy an “inconvenience” for the employer, an attitude which few so boldly admit to but nevertheless has significant ramifications for women in the workplace.

Over two-thirds of women with children under the age of six are currently employed or looking for work outside of the home, meaning pregnancy discrimination affects a large portion of American workers simply trying to care for their children.

Pregnancy discrimination hurts women, families, children, and even businesses who then miss out on opportunities to hire hard-working employees. Above all, considering a woman’s pregnancy before her qualifications and skills is illegal, and for the sake of our families and workplaces, a form of discrimination we should have moved past a long time ago.

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Grieving a Due Date

Dealing with the grief of a miscarriage is even harder when trying to manage the interplay of work and family life.

I found out I was pregnant early in the morning on the Friday before Labor Day. I grinned as I asked my husband to read the digital test out loud and immediately began to imagine what life as a family of four would be like.

That afternoon I bought my son the customary “big brother” tee-shirt and snapped a few pictures to send to my family who, after finally noting the script across my boy’s chest, called with their laughter and teary congratulations.

I told a few close friends, I started a “new baby” folder on my desktop with a list of potential names, links to baby bedding and articles about sibling bonding.

And then, as suddenly as it came, it was gone.

I knew I was pregnant for just a week before the doctor called to say that the pregnancy was likely ectopic and that my levels weren’t rising like they should be.

My best case scenario became miscarrying naturally. I cried, my husband cried and my family cried. My toddler continued to pat my belly and whisper “baby, baby” long after there wasn’t any baby at all.

I had a miscarriage before I had my son, I was ten weeks along when it’s little heart stopped beating and I had the D&C to remove it, and, at the time I didn’t know how I would move past the grief. This time though, as devastated as I was, I moved forward more quickly.

I took my son for a walk a few hours after I started to bleed, we went to Music Together as I cramped. I shut my office door at work but didn’t take any time off. There were likely several reasons for my brusqueness regarding this miscarriage. I was further along last time and had had more time to settle into the thought of motherhood. I had a toddler this time, one whose daily care removed the possibility of curling into bed or sleeping away the hurt.

The first time I wondered if I would ever be a mother, this time I had a trust that things would work out eventually because my son, beautiful and perfect, wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t lost my first pregnancy.

What surprised me in my grief, though it shouldn’t have with the amount of thought I put into it before I got pregnant, was the loss of my May due date.

[su_pullquote align=”right”]For me, it’s not enough for someone to tell me I should stop and smell the flowers; that my kids will be grown before I know it and I should remember to pay attention to them now.[/su_pullquote]

My husband is a teacher and I ran a youth development program that, while active over the summer, is much more time and labor intensive during school months. I’d had my IUD removed in late spring and charted my cycles all summer to make sure that I had a great shot of getting pregnant when August came.

When it actually worked, and I became pregnant just when I wanted, I couldn’t believe my luck- it seemed my husband and I really would be able to spend the early months of our new baby’s life together as a family.

Thoughts of a shared leave with my husband excited me, but the primary driver of my desire to have a May baby was that it would be the least disruptive time for me to step away from work, which, in turn, would allow me to feel less guilty about getting pregnant in the first place.

I’d started my position with the organization just over two and a half years before, I was fresh out of graduate school and eight weeks pregnant with my son. I told my boss of my pregnancy at my thirty day evaluation with an apology and promise that I would work extra-hard until my due-date and return full-force eight weeks later. As my belly grew, I felt I owed my office mates, people who I had met just months earlier but who would, for the time I was out, be doing my job, a constant apology.

I wondered if I should get them thank-you cards or some sort of gift of appreciation but I wasn’t sure what was appropriate. It never crossed my mind that it was my offices lack of maternity leave policy or willingness to hire a contract worker that would leave my colleagues with extra work, not my pregnancy alone.

It never crossed my mind that it was my offices lack of maternity leave policy or willingness to hire a contract worker that would leave my colleagues with extra work, not my pregnancy alone.

In the twenty-one months since my son’s birth I’d become more comfortable with my colleagues and with my own professionalism. The quality of my work was evident and I felt confident that my co-workers would be happy for me should I become pregnant again.

Still though, I had a nagging fear that others will resent me for stepping out, if only for a brief time, or that in my absence I’d miss something that left me perpetually behind, unable to keep up with my colleagues who don’t have kids.

This May baby was my good faith effort to show that I was a team player, that I was willing to do my part to minimize any disruption that my brief leave would cause. We had started trying again right away after my first loss but when the May baby disappeared I didn’t know whether I should try again, or if I should I wait, an entire year, to try again for another spring due date.

If I were to be successful in getting pregnant right away, I would likely deliver in the fall, the most labor intensive season of my work. If I were to wait though, and try again for a spring baby, there would be a chance I wouldn’t get pregnant in time or that the next baby wouldn’t stick either.

The loss, and decision making process regarding trying again, brought to mind larger questions about the weight each should carry in the interplay of work and family life.

A part of me wanted to simply disregard any influence that my job calendar might have on my childbearing- I would be, after all, creating life, which is a pretty big deal. I loved my job though, and wanted to ensure that it got done well. A larger part of me than I’d like to admit also cared a lot what others thought, I wanted people to like me and feared that they won’t if the birth of my baby forced them into longer work hours.

After recognizing that the plans we make for pregnancy may be more fragile than we would hope, my husband and I decided to start try again.

We calculated and we planned but, ultimately, life happened. The growing of a baby is both unpredictable and miraculous and I just didn’t want to wait. In the months following my loss, when I saw another woman pick up her newborn or caress her growing belly, I felt an actual ache. I felt ready to become a mother again, for the flutter of kicks from the inside out, for the tightness of contractions, for newness of a just-born baby, all flexing fingers and blinking eyes.

I wanted my son and his future sibling to be close in age and I wanted to leave room for more babies after that if I so chose. In the moment, these desires seemed more pressing than the opinions of co-workers or the timing of the eight week’s I’d be out of work.

We began trying right away despite our concerns about work and, in the funny way life works, my husband and I both switched jobs within months of our loss but have yet to get pregnant.

Though neither of us are now in positions with a clear “least-bad” time to step away with a newborn, starting anew has brought to light new concerns. Now, we worry that if we get pregnant soon, which we hope we will be, we won’t have worked at our organizations long enough to build up the goodwill that negotiating a reasonable leave requires. And again, I worry what people will think and how my co-workers will feel about my potential absence.

As it turns out, being a working parent is hard and there really never is a perfect time to have a baby.

It’s been five months of trying and we’re hoping that it won’t be much longer. Until then, we’ll work hard, plan as best we can and hope that when we do become pregnant our co-workers will be happy for us, our bosses will help us make a plan for leave and we’ll grow a happy, healthy baby.

Readers, as you planned your pregnancies how much did your work, or work schedule, impact your plans?

Michelle Obama’s most powerful speech

First Lady Michelle Obama gave a commencement speech at Tuskegee University in Alabama last Saturday. It’s a powerful 25-minute speech packed with food for thought that’s received mixed praise and criticism from the media.

Obama addresses topics like racial discrimination, black achievement in America, gender stereotypes, motherhood and staying true to one’s self in her commencement speech.

She also shares stories of criticism she’s faced in her role as the first black woman to serve as First Lady of the United States, as well as with the parenting, career and political choices she’s made.

“Back when my husband first started campaigning for President, folks had all sorts of questions of me: What kind of First Lady would I be? What kinds of issues would I take on? And the truth is, those same questions would have been posed to any candidate’s spouse. That just the way the process works. But, as potentially the first African American First Lady, I was the focus of another set of questions and speculations; conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others. Was I too loud, or too angry, or even emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?”

The first time she made a magazine cover, it was a satirical cartoon of her with a huge afro holding a machine gun. Obama recalls how much that stung to be portrayed in that manner.

She mentions “sleepless nights” when Barack Obama first started campaigning for the Presidency, worrying about what others thought about her, if she might hurt her husband’s campaign or fearing what her daughters would feel if they knew the hateful and critical things others said about their mom.

The First Lady goes on to explain that she eventually realized that she couldn’t let others define her as a mom and a woman. “I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself—the rest would work itself out.” She learned to block everything out and focus on her truth by asking the following questions: Who am I? What do I care about?

The answers to those questions, she remarks, define her. She is “first and foremost” a mom.

“Look, I love our daughters more than anything in the world, more than life itself. And while that may not be the first thing that some folks want to hear from an Ivy-league educated lawyer, it is truly who I am. So for me, being Mom-in-Chief is, and always will be, job number one.”

For Obama, next come the obligations she feels as First Lady to make the biggest impact possible with her political platform. Criticized for her choices not being “bold enough”, the First Lady defends her decisions to focus on helping families raise healthier kids, honoring military families and inspiring youth to stay in school and attend college. They are her choices, and she tackles what feels most authentic and true to herself.

The First Lady gives helpful advice in her commencement speech that any mother can use.

“At the end of the day, by staying true to the me I’ve always known, I found that this journey has been incredibly freeing. I have learned that as long as I hold fast to my beliefs and values—and follow my own moral compass—then the only expectations I need to live up to are my own.”

The First Lady’s speech is well worth a listen in its entirety. Take a listen and ask yourself the following questions as a parent: Who am I? What do I care about? What inspires me? How do I want to give back?