In 1978 Congress added to the nation's workplace protections by passing the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which made it illegal to terminate or otherwise discriminate against an employee just because she is pregnant.
Thirty-five years later, however, complaints from pregnant women in the workforce continue. Two researchers who have looked into these complaints conclude that, even though pregnancy discrimination is against the law, it's still going on.
In their study, Reginald Byron, assistant professor of sociology at Southwestern University and Vincent Roscigno, professor of sociology at Ohio State University, said today's discrimination is a bit more subtle. Byron says pregnant employees are more likely to be singled out as poor performers and held strictly accountable for tardiness.
Byron and Roscigno concede performance and tardiness are very legitimate business concerns. The problem, they say, is the appearance that not all non-pregnant employees are being held to the same standards.
“This strategy of portraying pregnant workers as undependable and costly seems to legitimize their terminations to external audiences,” Byron said. “Such a strategy adds to existing employer-employee power disparities like employers’ ability to hire a lawyer in discrimination suits.”
The research will no doubt strike a chord with the National Women's Law Center (NWLC), which has continued to highlight problems encountered in the workplace by pregnant employees.
The group's blog recounts the example of a Pennsylvania woman allegedly subjected to ridicule by fellow employees and indifference by her boss when she asked for private space to pump breast milk each day for her child. NWLC says the woman's boss responded to her complaints by placing her on a rotating shift.
Examples cited in the study
Byron and Roscigno say they analyzed 70 verified cases of pregnancy-based firing discrimination that were handled by the Ohio Civil Rights Commission between 1986 and 2003. They also looked at another 15 cases processed between 2007 and 2011.
Among their findings they said 40% of gender-related complaints involved a pregnant woman. In 30% of the terminations, poor performance was cited as the reason. In 10% of the firings employers cited “business needs, profit and efficiency.”
In citing specific examples the researchers highlighted the case of an assistant restaurant manager who happened to be pregnant, and who was terminated from her job. The reason? Not her performance, the researchers say. The restaurant downsized its management, reducing the assistant managers from three to two, not an unusual occurrence in this economy.
But not long after the downsizing, Byron says the restaurant expanded, hiring a man to fill the position that earlier was no longer needed. Byron says some managers may discriminate unconsciously.
“Some employers think pregnant women will be distracted both in the present and in the future,” Byron said.
What the law says
Employers might argue there are two sides to every dismissal story, and in fact there may be. But the law is quite specific about a pregnant woman's rights in the workplace.
According to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC), an employer can't refuse to hire a pregnant woman because of her pregnancy, because of a pregnancy-related condition, or because of the prejudices of co-workers, clients, or customers.
Neither may an employer single out pregnancy-related conditions for special procedures to determine an employee's ability to work. If an employee is temporarily unable to perform her job because of her pregnancy, she must be treated as any other temporarily disabled employee. A leave for pregnancy must be treated the same as any leave of absence for all employees on sick or disability leave.