Employers Can Still Discriminate Against Pregnant Women — How Do We Stop This?

Despite the fact that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act passed into law way back in 1978, women today still fear how having a child will impact their careers. These fears pass the merit test — even in 2019, some employers continue to find sneaky ways to circumvent the law and derail the aspirations of women hoping to balance a successful career with motherhood.

Pregnancy discrimination doesn't only harm the targeted woman. Society as a whole suffers when new and old mothers alike receive walking papers through no fault of their own. Here's how employers continue to exhibit bias toward expectant mothers and what we must do to address this issue.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock, Heather Mount on Unsplash, and Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock, Heather Mount on Unsplash, and Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash.

The Silent Plague of Pregnancy Discrimination

Few employers blatantly declare an expectant woman is unfit for work. That would give women legal leverage to protest their mistreatment in the courts. To justify treating pregnant women differently, managers need to get a bit creative to circumvent the law.

One way employers justify discrimination against pregnant women involves the use of performance evaluations. Many businesses implement these in a genuine attempt to reward their best employees with bonuses and other incentives. The problem arises when a supervisor deliberately writes a pregnant woman up for the same behavior male employees engage in without consequence.

Because performance evals naturally contain a subjective component, managers can skew the evaluations of women who are pregnant or whom they fear may become pregnant by creating a paper trail indicating job ineptitude. In reality, though, the woman is performing at an equivalent level as her male colleagues. Savvy supervisors understand that, should a woman bring a discrimination suit, they will need to provide documentation to prove a pattern of inadequate performance.

Additionally, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act only applies to employers with more than 15 employees. Considering that nearly 90 percent of U.S. employers have fewer than 20 employees, this leaves a considerable pool of women workers unprotected by federal law. Some jurisdictions, not all, have adopted additional anti-discrimination statues, but women lacking such protections have scant legal recourse.

Women seeking new employment during pregnancy face additional hurdles, especially if they've begun to show. While discriminating remains illegal during the hiring process, many women experience difficulty when trying to prove that discrimination, not other factors like lack of experience, culled her from the applicant pool.

Why Do Employers Still Discriminate?

Employers discriminate against pregnant women for several reasons. One reason remains the erroneous but widespread perception that women with children will devote more time to family than they will to their career. While most men don't blink an eye at pulling the occasional overtime, women — especially single mothers — may find last-minute schedule adjustments difficult to reconcile with picking up junior from day care on time.

Another reason employers persist in discriminating against pregnant women involves the high cost of employer-sponsored health coverage in the U.S. Giving birth can cost upwards of $10,000 or more, even when delivery goes smoothly. Should complications arise, costs may soar even higher, potentially resulting in increased premium costs.

Art by  @liberaljane

Art by @liberaljane

How Pregnancy Discrimination Harms Everyone

Regardless of the rationale employers assert when engaging in pregnancy discrimination, the fact remains that when a woman cannot support herself and her unborn through gainful employment, society as a whole bears the cost.

Children born to single mothers face a much higher risk of poverty than those born into two-parent families. Approximately 40 percent of children born to single moms experience poverty as compared with only 12 percent of their two-parent peers.

Many new mothers, especially single ones, find they need public assistance to keep food on the table. This transfers the burden of support from individual employers to taxpayers at large. In a capitalistic society, this unduly burdens taxpayers, especially considering most women could support their families well if discrimination didn't lead to job loss or cuts in pay grade.

Ending the Discrimination

Addressing pregnancy discrimination requires efforts from the grassroots level to the highest echelons of major corporations and the federal government. At a governmental level, taxpayers need to request that legislators draft stricter rules regarding what qualifies as discrimination based upon childbearing status.

Individual employers can thwart discrimination by clearly outlining salary and benefit policies in their employee handbooks, implementing objective, not subjective, performance evaluations and offering paid, not unpaid, leave for new moms. Additionally, they can offer resources such as on-site child care that allows single moms to work while still keeping a watchful eye on baby.

Individual women can support each other in many ways. Women who witness pregnancy discrimination against colleagues can report these incidents to HR, as pregnant women may justifiably fear further punitive measures should they file a complaint on their own. All women benefit from keeping prior performance evaluations as both hard copies and uploaded cloud documents to provide evidence that lack of ability and effort did not factor into discriminatory employment decisions.

Ending pregnancy discrimination won't come easily, but if we as a society are to truly give new moms the care they need and deserve, we must address this issue together. All children deserve to be born into a world of financial security, and all women deserve the right to balance work and family obligations just as men do.

Article by Kate Harveston