The problem of a pregnant pause
Despite family-leave laws, the number of pregnancy discrimination cases is on the rise in the US.
Ten days before Karen Wright was scheduled to return to work after a six-month maternity leave, she received a shock: Her employer was transferring her to another position, still to be determined.Skip to next paragraph
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"I was stunned, to say the least," says Mrs. Wright, who had spent six years as a university media relations director. "My reviews had been excellent, so I had no reason to believe I would lose my job."
When she finally returned three months later to another position in the same division, she agreed in writing to accept a lower salary. "I wouldn't have believed it if it hadn't happened to me," Wright says.
She is hardly alone. Although pregnant women have made great strides since the days when they routinely quit their jobs when they "started to show," situations like Wright's still occur with surprising regularity. A study released this month finds a nearly 400 percent increase in the past decade in lawsuits involving family responsibility discrimination, from 97 cases in 1996 to 481 last year. A majority of cases involve pregnancy, says Cynthia Calvert, deputy director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law, which issued the report.
"Obviously things are better now," Ms. Calvert says, citing the Family and Medical Leave Act as one gain. But she remains dismayed by the number of pregnancy discrimination cases. She is also surprised by how blatant they are.
"There are things being said in 2006 that you would have been shocked by 30 years ago," she says. "Employers still say things like, 'You're being terminated because you need to take a lot of time off for your problem pregnancy and for maternity leave.' One woman was told she would not be promoted because she got pregnant. We're also finding men requesting leave and being terminated." A chemical engineer won a $3 million verdict after her boss asked her, "Do you want to have babies or have a career here?"
With two-thirds of women with children under 18 in the workforce, the problem affects those at all levels, from executives to blue-collar workers. Today more than half of pregnant employees work into the final month of pregnancy. Some stay until their due date or until labor begins, practically going from desk to delivery room.
"Most of my friends worked 80 hours a week until the day they were ready to deliver," says Alice Kengla, a doctor in Los Angeles. "We're all physicians, so we just waddle over to Labor and Delivery when the water breaks."
Many women stay until the end because they need the paychecks. Others want to save their leave time to be with the baby. Still others fear being passed over for key projects or being "mommy-tracked" when they return. "In our culture, if you want the job you had before you left, you will be back as soon as you can," says Victoria Pericon, founder of SavvyMommy.com.
So deep is the concern that some women have sought Ms. Pericon's advice on how to hide their pregnancy longer. "They wanted to make sure they weren't passed over. Others needed a few more weeks before they told their boss."
James Ryan, spokesman for the EEOC, sees cases where employers make patronizing remarks supposedly based on an employee's well-being. "They'll say, 'We don't want you to hurt yourself.' They're trying to play doctor. It should be the employee and her physician who decide when it's time to quit work and when it's time to resume." Although a boss might mean well, he adds, such attitudes are discriminatory.
Blatant comments remain only part of the problem. A manager's silence can also affect the trajectory of women's careers – and salaries – during and after pregnancy, slowing their progress as they bump against a "maternal wall." Often, Calvert says, employers do not consider pregnant women or women with young children for promotion. "They just assume without asking that women won't want to travel, work longer hours, relocate – whatever the promotion involves."
Even when employers offer good provisions for maternity leave, new mothers sometimes struggle when they return.