There is no doubt that women and childbearing have played a very important part in building any society. After all, every one of us was birthed by a pregnant woman. However, are we as a society discriminating against pregnant women unnecessarily?
It has been observed that there are instances of pregnancy discrimination going on in workplaces, where expectant women are fired, not hired or face other kinds of discrimination at their workplace simply because they are pregnant or intend to be pregnant. There has been no shortage of cases where women have been fired after informing their employer of their pregnancy, after they return from maternity leave or possibly also having their pay cut during their leave.
Why are employers discriminating against pregnant women? Well, each employer probably has their own reasons and it can be anyone’s guess. Some reasons stated include employers fearing that the pregnant woman would be less productive due to her absence, require too many accommodations after her return or cause a loss of profits to the company due to decreased productivity and the wages she is still given by taking paid maternity leave. Other employees may feel that they are unable to allocate temporary manpower or funding for others to take over the pregnant woman’s job while she is away. Yet others may harbor prejudice against women and mothers in the workplace. From a purely profitable point of view, it would make much more sense to fire a pregnant woman once she is unable to work frequently, and hire someone else in her place who would be able to work permanently.
While companies in the United States have been trying to breach the gender equality gap and be more welcoming to women workers, they often fail to acknowledge one of the most pressing concerns of women no matter where they work – getting knocked off the corporate ladder once they start to show signs of pregnancy. Even worse, this discrimination may not go away even after the woman has given birth – it may even last through the first few years of maternity. Numerous companies, from small businesses to prestigious giants, still pass over pregnant women when it comes to promotions and pay raises. They are seen as less committed to their jobs, given less priority when it comes to important assignments and excluded from core meetings. Compared to men and non-pregnant women, pregnant women receive fewer promotions and are fired more often when they ask for special accommodations.
Pregnant women in physically intensive jobs tend to suffer the most. Once they start showing visible signs of pregnancy, they often risk losing their jobs even by asking to take a break or carry a water bottle with them. Alternatively, employers may make unreasonable requests of pregnant women, thinking that they must either put in the same amount of effort as any other worker – or risk being fired. One example is Otisha Woolbright, who worked at Walmart, lifting 50-pound trays of chickens into industrial ovens at the deli and bakery every day. When she was three months pregnant in 2013, she went for a check up on unusual bleeding. The physician told her that she was at risk of miscarrying and gave her a note to avoid strenuous work. When returning to Walmart with the note, she asked for light duty, but her boss simply replied that Demi Moore had done a flip on television when she was nearly full-term, so being pregnant was no excuse for not being able to do physically strenuous work. As a result, Otisha kept working week after week. It took a bout of sharp pains during work to convince Walmart to give her light duty. However, she was fired once she inquired about maternity leave.
According to an analysis by the University of Massachusetts in 2014, a woman’s hourly wages decreases by 4 percent for every child she has, while men’s hourly wages actually increase by 6 percent once they have children. While women have been filing for pregnancy discrimination more often in the past two decades and is actually reaching an all-time high now, there are still many more pregnant women who suffer in silence.
There are some acts in place to prevent the discrimination of pregnant women, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Maternity Protection Convention C 183, which prohibit the discrimination of women based on their pregnancy or maternity status. In the United States, the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act prevents pregnant women from being discriminated but has not yet been 100 percent effective.
One reason why not all of the workplace discrimination is that even if there is an anti-discriminatory law, some companies still choose to bury it under small print in a miniscule clause. Some pregnant women are still unsure of their rights and unable to stand up for themselves even if they are being wrongly laid off. Others are unable to afford an attorney or fear that their employers may retaliate if they find out about the claim, making life even tougher. In particular, pregnant women may wish to avoid a negative reference from their bosses, which can really ruin a career especially if the woman has plans to move ahead in the corporate world.
Also, there are loopholes out of the law that a company can easily exploit. Companies with 15 or more employees are required by law to treat maternity in medical coverage and leave just as they would any other short-term disability. Pregnant women are to be allowed to work as long as they are able to perform their jobs, and when they go on maternity leave, their employers must hold their position in the company for as long as they would any employee on disability leave. Additionally, companies with more than 50 employees are required to allow for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for childbirth, family illness or emergencies as long as the employee has been working full-time there for at least a year or worked at least 1,250 hours. Unfortunately, employers are also allowed to fire employees during their maternity leave if the business downsizes and has no longer any need for that job position. As long as the employer is able to prove that their reason for firing an employee on maternity leave had to do with structural changes to the business, they can easily get around the law and leave the woman little evidence to prove her claim.
Although the law backs up pregnant women by prohibiting discrimination against them, the very act of proving discrimination can be difficult. In most parts of the United States, it is illegal to video record workplace behavior, even for the purpose of recording discriminatory actions as evidence. Most pregnant women end up only having only their own accounts to go by, since their colleagues would be unlikely to back them up for fear of putting their own employment in danger.
In our quest for advocating gender equality and no discrimination, let us not neglect pregnant women, many of whom still suffer from unfair policies in the workplace. If men are not punished for having children, then why should women be?
May 07, 2020