- Elizabeth Warren tweeted on Tuesday about getting fired from a job in 1971 when she was six months pregnant. It inspired me to share my own story.
- A supervisor once told me that it would be “hard” to climb in a company and also have a baby.
- Lawsuits involving women who need accommodations at work while pregnant increased by 315% from 2006 to 2016, according to a report released by the Centre for WorkLife Law, a nonprofit research group.
- Jennifer Gerson is an award-winning freelance journalist whose reporting on reproductive rights, women’s health, and sexual violence regularly appears in Cosmopolitan, The Guardian, and other publications.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The first time I was explicitly warned that having children could jeopardize my career, I could barely think.
My annual review was coming up, and I had been repeatedly told how well I was doing. My manager had hinted at a substantive promotion for some time. A superior asked me to grab coffee and I assumed it would be to discuss all the exciting things the company had in store for me.
“I’m sure you’ll be wanting to start a family soon — you’re at that age and time in your life,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to do that and do the kinds of things we’re talking about you doing here. We really need to make sure someone can be committed if we’re talking about moving up.”
My palms were suddenly sweaty. My feet felt shaky, even though I was sitting. I nodded a lot. I immediately started wondering if I had misheard him. By the end of the day, I knew I hadn’t. And I knew that I needed to start looking for a new job.
I never thought pregnancy discrimination would happen to me
I thought of this painful experience after Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren shared her story of pregnancy discrimination on Tuesday. She tweeted a story she has been telling for some time: When she was 22 years old, six months pregnant and working as a speech pathologist at a public school in Riverdale, New Jersey, she said the principal gave her job to someone else.
Some news outlets have questioned the veracity of Warren’s account, because according to official records, she resigned from the position. The senator also wasn’t always so open about these specific details of her time working in the public school system.
Still, Warren continues to stand by her account and people familiar with the issue say that at that time, a pregnant person would not have been allowed to stay on – that’s simply how it was in 1971.
In response, scores of women took to Twitter to recount the ways in which getting pregnant has harmed their careers. Some talked about getting passed over for raises and promotions. Others mentioned having to answer questions about their reproductive plans in job interviews.
In 40% of US families, mothers are primary or co-breadwinners
The issue persists even though in 40% of American families, mothers are the primary or co-breadwinners. Lawsuits involving women who need accommodations at work while pregnant increased by 315% from 2006 to 2016, according to a report released by the Centre for WorkLife Law, a nonprofit research group that focuses on women’s economic advancement.
Women are targeted after giving birth, too. For every child they have, women lose 4% of their hourly wages, the New York Times reported in February.
Passed in 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was supposed to protect women from these very scenarios. It meant that someone couldn’t be denied a job, a promotion or other work-related opportunity, due to being pregnant.
“Pregnant workers have the right to be treated at least as well as other employees who are not pregnant but are similarly affected by their ability or inability to do work,” said Maya Raghu, director of workplace equality and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Centre in Washington, D.C..
Many women say the Pregnancy Discrimination Act only goes so far, though.
About a year ago, everything seemed to be going well for T., who asked for her full name and industry to be withheld because of fear of retaliation by her employer. She was thriving in her job in California and was overjoyed when she got pregnant.
Shortly before her due date, T. said her full-time role was reduced to a contracting position and she could not be guaranteed a set number of hours of work. Her salary was drastically reduced and she lost her benefits.
“I was so stressed out about having a job,” T. said. “So, I just agreed to it. I felt desperate. I took it.”
She said that since transitioning, T.’s been left out of critical conference calls and made to feel like “a person to outsource work to” at best.
Women across industries experience pregnancy discrimination
Like Warren, there’s likely no explicit note in T.’s file indicating that the change in her job status was related to her pregnancy. But it’s hard for her to not see the connection.
The same goes for L. in Atlanta, who also asked for her name to be withheld for fear of professional retaliation and stigma. When she was seven months pregnant with her second child nearly three years ago, she was laid off from her job at a large telecommunications company.
It was “devastating and terrifying,” she said.
Finding a job while visibly pregnant proved to be impossible. She finally was able to get work when her baby was 3 months old, and employers were no longer concerned about her taking maternity leave.
Women across a broad range of industries say they’re experiencing pregnancy discrimination at work. Today, the discrimination has just gotten more subtle, making it easier for employers to deny liability, but no easier for the women are left picking up the pieces of a sidelined career.
Still, women working low-wage jobs face pregnancy discrimination perhaps even more widely, partly because they need accommodations for physically strenuous jobs like retail and food service. They’re frequently just denied accommodations, put on unpaid leave they can’t afford to take, or are pushed out altogether, Raghu noted.
What happened to me was illegal – but it wasn’t surprising
I remember calling my dad the day my superior strongly suggested that my having children could preclude my growth at the company where I was working at the time. My father had been hiring and managing employees for decades. I knew he could gut check my feelings at that point.
As my voice wavered between anger and tears, I asked him if the interaction was illegal. He assured me that it was, but also shared that he wasn’t all that surprised by what my supervisor had said. He said this kind of discrimination happens all the time, not that its rampancy makes it anymore acceptable.
After I became a mother, I realised freelancing would be most compatible with my lifestyle. I was privileged to be able to make the kind of career move that frees me from the direct line of questioning about my family life that could impact my professional growth. I sometimes fantasize about returning to the corporate office world. But then I look at my daughter and realise I’m where I need to be – for her and for me.
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