Progress Slow for Women on Job

TWO steps forward, one step back.

That's the erratic pattern of progress women sometimes still encounter in the workplace. Just when they think old forms of discrimination have been eliminated, signs of a reversal appear.

The latest evidence of bias involves workers who are pregnant or have recently given birth. For the first time in several years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports a slight increase in pregnancy discrimination complaints. Although the number of cases is relatively small - 3,186 - many times that number of incidents go unreported, according to lawyers and women's groups.

The most egregious examples involve women who lose their jobs simply because they are pregnant. More typically, a new mother discovers when she returns from leave that her responsibilities have been cut back. By artfully claiming that the shift is merely part of a restructuring, managers make pregnancy-related discrimination hard to prove.

Many employers have taken impressive steps in the past decade to accommodate the needs of employees' families, offering such benefits as parental leave, child care, and flexible schedules. If President-elect Clinton signs a parental-leave bill twice vetoed by President Bush, workers will receive even more protection - up to three months of unpaid, job-protected leave to care for a baby.

But even that forward step cannot guarantee that the 2 million working women who give birth each year will all be fairly treated. In an age of downsizing, managers may find it tempting to use pregnancy and motherhood as a way of eliminating positions, even though such discrimination is illegal.

The increase in pregnancy discrimination serves as a reminder that some managers remain deeply ambivalent about the role of new mothers in the work force. Yet millions of women successfully combine careers and families. For them, equality in the workplace will come only when corporate leaders stop pitting maternal instincts against professional abilities. A baby's arrival in a family should not be the occasion for a mother's demotion or involuntary departure from the work force.

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