The problem of a pregnant pause
Despite family-leave laws, the number of pregnancy discrimination cases is on the rise in the US.
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Denyse Dabrowski worked for a large public relations firm in New Jersey until the day her daughter was born, then took four months of maternity leave paid by the company. Although her firm ranked as one of Working Mother's "100 best companies for working mothers," she says, "It wasn't a very friendly environment in terms of flexible schedules." She ultimately left. Her current employer, a smaller firm, allows greater flexibility.Skip to next paragraph
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Lauren Williams, a managing partner at PrincetonOne, a staffing firm, often receives calls from women during their maternity leave. "If they don't work in a family-friendly environment, there's an opportunity with the amount of time off to look for a company that can better fit their new lifestyle," she says. In most instances, women decide to go back.
When they do, some firms now allow them to phase in their return. Instead of coming back a full 40 hours a week, they might arrange to work part time for the first month or the first week. "It's a chance to dip their toes in the water instead of having to dive right back in," says Monica Roper, a senior consultant at WFD Consulting in Newton, Mass. "In many cases the company might have lost a woman if they only offered her an all-or-nothing approach."
Efforts like these will become essential as managers brace for demographic changes.
"We're going to be losing a huge percentage of older workers within the next five to 10 years," says Susan Seitel, president of Work & Family Connection in Minnetonka, Minn. "There will be a skills shortage. Young workers also have a whole different set of priorities. Family time is becoming more and more important. Companies have to look carefully at what young women want and how they can attract and retain them."
Other changes are coming through the courts as women become more aware of their rights and take action. In pregnancy discrimination cases, damages can range from a few thousand dollars to millions of dollars, Calvert says. Most of these lawsuits are filed under Title VII, the federal statute that prohibits sex discrimination in employment.
In another sign of changing attitudes this month, in a landmark case, Verizon was ordered to pay nearly $49 million to 12,300 women who worked for the Bell companies in the 1960s and 1970s. They were forced to take maternity leave before they were ready. They were also denied service credits while they were out, even though workers who were out for any reason other than pregnancy were not denied.
Other solutions involve public policy. In California, statewide family leave pays 55 percent of a worker's salary, up to $840 a week, for six weeks, for new parents. Operated through the state disability system, it is 100 percent employee-paid. It does not guarantee time off.
"It just makes an unbelievable difference," says Netsy Firestein, executive director of the Labor Project for Working Families in Berkeley, Calif. About 85 percent of those who use it are new mothers. Fathers qualify as well.
For employers, maternity leave is "definitely a disruption, but it's also a fact of life," Ms. Williams says. "With proper planning, there shouldn't be that much of a blip on the radar screen."
Employment specialists emphasize the need to educate both employers and employees. Many bosses are unfamiliar with how to enforce the laws, says Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. "Some workers think they have rights that they don't. Others don't know they have rights."
As Wright reflects on the changes in her career, she is sanguine. "My new job isn't as stressful or as bureaucratic, which allows me more time with my 2-year-old son," she says. "I enjoy what I do. My boss has been great. If I still had the leadership ambitions that I had before the baby, I would be upset. However, having a child has changed my priorities."
But workplace experts caution that managers cannot assume all women want to downsize their ambitions. They urge companies to train managers to make personnel decisions based on merit, not assumptions.
Ultimately, Ms. Ness says, "You have to change policies and behaviors. To get at that, you have to change people's hearts and minds. That's gradually happening."