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.
"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.
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.
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."