Pregnant Women Still Face Job Discrimination

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Anybody who saw Amy Poehler on Saturday Night Live shaking her ripe baby belly at Sarah Palin as if it were a huge fleshy pompom had to be impressed. She's rapping! And dancing! On national TV! In front of a possible future veep! A week before she delivers! Pregnant women can do anything!

That opinion, apparently, is not universally shared. October 31 marks the 30th anniversary of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which outlawed employment discrimination against women who are Poehler-ized. But the news that pregnant women need to be treated as would any employee with a broken leg or other temporary disability — i.e., not get fired or demoted — seems to have not quite sunk in. Complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) are on a decade-long rise, up 65% from 1992 to 2007. And the number of cases the EEOC has decided to take on has quadrupled in the same period.

"We would expect that pregnancy bias would be a non-issue by now, 30 years after passage of the PDA," says Christine Nazer, a spokesperson for the EEOC. Yet in 2007, claims hit a record of 5,587, and the commission won nearly $2 million for women who claimed they'd been sold up the creek for being up the duff. Pregnancy claims are still a very small part of the cases the EEOC deals with and haven't grown nearly as fast as charges of false dismissal for retaliation, religion or national origin. Possibly that's because pregnancy discrimination is underreported. "Many women, especially professionals, may view charge filings and litigation as 'career killers,'" says Nazer, "and others may not be inclined to fight an organization with a baby on the way for fear of termination or other retaliation."

A new study by the non-partisan National Partnership for Women and Families looked closely at the EEOC's figures for the decade between 1996 and 2005 and found that more than half of the complaints came not from the more traditionally chauvinistic mining or building trades but from five female-heavy industries: retail, services, finance, real estate and insurance. "One of the most ironic cases was that of a maternity store that had a policy of not hiring pregnant employees," says Jocelyn Frye, General Counsel for the Partnership.

While it seems reasonable that the highest number of complaints would come from the industries with the most women, it's also true that the percentage of the work force made up by women has only increased marginally in the same period — from 57.8% to 59.3% — not nearly enough to account for the jump in claims of pregnancy-related dismissals. Especially worrying is that 75% of the claims were made by women of color.

What then lies behind the rise? "There seems to be an underlying assumption that a woman will not be as interested in her work or as committed to her work once she's pregnant or has had a baby," says Frye. This remains true even though studies show more women, including governors of Alaska and TV stars, are working later into their 40 weeks. What goes unspoken, of course, is that while pregnancy is a temporary disability, motherhood could be considered a permanent one, dividing women's attention for at least the next 18 years.

Obviously, there are financial reasons why a firm might not want to hire a pregnant woman: her health insurance will be more expensive and she'll have to take some leave in the foreseeable future. Even so, if it can be proved that that's the only reason she wasn't hired, that firm could be facing the EEOC. "You can imagine the slippery slope," says Frye. "First it's, 'Don't hire a pregnant woman.' Then it becomes, 'Don't hire a woman at all, because she could get pregnant and is likely to be the primary caregiver.'"

Then there are the studies that suggest that pregnant women just plain gross some people out. In one, people who viewed videotapes of non-pregnant women and visibly pregnant women doing the same task judged the pregnant women more negatively (and no, the activity was not smoking. Or sit-ups.)

That bias may stem from an urge to give pregnant women lesser duties. "People may feel they're doing the right thing," suggests Frye. "But they're not."

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