Is the “Maternal Wall” Still Holding Women Back?
Pregnancy discrimination was supposed to end 40 years ago. It hasn’t.
When I was in the sixth month of my first pregnancy, my baby bump prominent enough that I no longer just looked fat, I told my husband how conspicuous I felt. “I’m a walking billboard — I’m announcing to the world that I’ve had sex,” I said. “It’s embarrassing.”
He laughed. He didn’t get it.
But the reality is, neither did I.
It was 1994 and the world in which I lived appeared to be treating women favorably. It was two decades after Roe v. Wade and 16 years since the passage, on October 31, 1978, of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting “sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.”
Working in TV and radio in Connecticut, I was reporting on Christopher Dodd’s Family & Medical Leave Act and was excited that men were being brought into the childcare conversation. I “encouraged” my husband to change 50% of the diapers at home. My all-male bosses treated me with respect even as I announced my pregnancy.
I may have been one of the lucky ones.
Forty years since the PDA was signed into law, the sad truth is that the law hasn’t stopped companies from discriminating against pregnant women.
Between 2010 and 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that 31-thousand pregnancy discrimination claims were filed against hundreds of companies including but not limited to Merck, AT&T, Whole Foods, 21st Century Fox, KPMG, Novartis and Verizon.
According to a June 2018 report in The New York Times called “Pregnancy Discrimination is Rampant Inside America’s Biggest Companies,” many employers still hold a belief that pregnant women and mothers are more dedicated and less dependable and “less authoritative and more irrational than other women.” For that reason “many of the country’s largest and most prestigious companies still systematically sideline pregnant women. They pass them over for promotions and raises. They fire them when they complain,” write the authors Natalie Kitroeff and Jessica Silver-Greenberg. “In physically demanding jobs … Pregnant women risk losing their jobs when they ask to carry water bottles or take rest breaks. In corporate office towers, the discrimination tends to be more subtle. Pregnant women and mothers are often perceived as less committed, steered away from prestigious assignments, excluded from client meetings and slighted at bonus season.”
By contrast, a 2010 analysis called Who Gets the Daddy Bonus? by the University of Massachusetts, Amherst reveals that men are rewarded for fatherhood while women are penalized. According to the study, “Each child chops 4 percent off a woman’s hourly wages … [while] men’s earnings increase by 6 percent when they become fathers,” report Natalie Kitroeff and Jessica Silver-Greenberg in the NYT.
Stanford University sociologist Shelley Correll calls this “The Motherhood Penalty.” “When a man has to leave work due, say, to severe nausea incident to chemotherapy … it’s seen as the cost of hiring human beings. If a woman has to leave work, say, due to severe nausea incident to pregnancy, she is seen as demanding special treatment,” says Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for Work-Life Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in a recent CNN interview.
Or in other words, we still have a long way to go.
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