Study Pregnancy Discrimination Persists 30 Years After It’s Made Illegal

By Staff Report

Oct. 30, 2008

A generation after federal civil rights laws were amended to prohibit pregnancy discrimination—and despite efforts to make the workplace more flexible—having a family can knock women out of jobs and promotions, according to a new study by a Washington advocacy group.

An analysis of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data from fiscal year 1992 to fiscal year 2007 shows a 65 percent increase in pregnancy discrimination charges, according to a National Partnership for Women and Families study released Wednesday, October 29.

The problem is more acute for racial and ethnic minorities, the study says. From fiscal year 1996 to fiscal year 2005, pregnancy discrimination charges filed by women of color spiked 76 percent.

The survey also reveals that there is no safety in numbers for women. Of the EEOC claims made from 1996 to 2005, 53 percent were from the service, retail and financial services industries, which employ 70 percent of all women.

“As a statistical matter, factors such as the number of women working, the number of working women having children, how long women work while pregnant, and when women return to work after pregnancy have grown at a slower pace than the growth of pregnancy discrimination complaints,” the report says.

The study was issued on the anniversary of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Approved in 1978, the act prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions.

Since then, societal biases about the work ethic, skills and commitment of pregnant women have not changed, according to advocates.

“Deeply entrenched attitudes still persist, and we have not been able to eliminate the biases that nurture them,” said Jocelyn Frye, general counsel at the partnership.

More than 50 percent of pregnancy discrimination cases involve unfair dismissal, according to Elizabeth Grossman, a regional attorney in the EEOC’s New York district office.

“It’s just shocking,” she said.

The problem thrives because people don’t have the inhibitions about commenting on pregnancy that they do when it comes to making remarks about race, said Grossman. “The stereotypes are still there, and they remain more unchecked than stereotypes about other groups,” she said.

A 2007 study showed that undergraduates who wore a pregnancy prosthesis and tried to apply for jobs at retail stores were treated harshly, while “pregnant” students who sought help buying a gift were welcomed, according to Eden King, assistant professor of industrial and organization psychology at George Mason University.

“We see these complementary interpersonal punishments and rewards that maintain traditional gender roles,” King said.

Frye recommends a nationwide education campaign to change the workplace atmosphere. She urges companies to explicitly prohibit pregnancy discrimination in their policies.

They also should clearly communicate performance expectations and evaluations. “It eliminates the possibility that pregnancy is the reason motivating any employment decision,” Frye said.

Most companies are trying to keep women in the workforce because it produces positive bottom-line results, according to Rachel Lyons, director of public policy at Business and Professional Women/USA.

“Having family friendly policies is good for business,” Lyons said.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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