Emerging bias: 'Your family or your career'
Fighting discrimination against working mothers and fathers gets an important boost from a key court ruling.
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A decade ago, Maryland State trooper Kevin Knussman put men's work-family conflicts on the map when he filed the first sex-discrimination claim related to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). He tried to take several weeks off to care for his wife and newborn daughter after complications in childbirth, but his supervisor denied him leave, saying that only women have the capacity to breast-feed a baby. She also told Mr. Knussman he couldn't be the primary caregiver unless his wife was in a coma or dead.Skip to next paragraph
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After seven years of trials and appeals, Knussman was awarded $40,000 for emotional distress and more than $600,000 for legal fees.
Caregiver discrimination is specifically prohibited in Alaska, the District of Columbia, the federal government, and a number of localities around the country. Nationally, many employees qualify for leave under the FMLA. But the fight is still under way to enforce such laws.
People regularly seek help from Amy Ficklin DeBrota, a lawyer in Indianapolis, when supervisors retaliate against them for trying to take time off to care for a sick family member. One such client, Cheryl Pirtle, says that after 10 years working for the state of Indiana, she was harassed by a supervisor for taking intermittent FMLA leave.
As her grandson's guardian, she needed time to take him to various hospitals when he had a few bouts of severe illness. Her supervisor was so hostile about it, she says, that she often drove to work in tears. "He said I had to choose either my job or my child," she says in a phone interview.
After about three months of the conflict, Ms. Pirtle was laid off this summer and is now considering a lawsuit. Shortly after the layoff, her grandson was finally diagnosed and treated properly, and he no longer requires special care.
When employers have family-friendly policies in place, "that is just the beginning," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York. "It depends on whether or not people can use [the leave policy] without jeopardy; it depends on people's perception of the culture and how your supervisor treats you."
In a recent national study, her group found that 39 percent of employees feared their careers would be jeopardized if they used the leave or flextime options available to them.
"We still define the ideal worker as someone who starts to work in early adulthood and works full time, full force, for 40 years straight," Williams says, "[but that] just doesn't fit with the families we have today."
Williams also takes issue with the way the media portray women as primarily "opting out" of the workforce when they have young children. Often, she says, they're pushed out because they're tired of the discrimination. Sociologists have found that when men are away from work, colleagues assume it's for business reasons, but when a mother is away, they assume she's with her kids. The WorkLife Law group also reports that part-time working mothers are seen as less nurturing than housewives, but less competent than full-time workers.
The stories that get a hearing in court are just the tip of the iceberg, Williams says. "You don't see cases now [where an employer says] 'This is not a job for a woman,' but it's not infrequent to see cases where the message is, 'This is not a job for a mother.' "