Women have seen tremendous gains when it comes to reproductive rights in the last few decades alone. When you consider the fact that birth control wasn’t even approved by the FDA until 1960, it’s astounding to think how far the dream of equal treatment at work and at the doctor’s office has come in such a short period of time.
That being said, there’s still a long way to go. The stigma that still exists around women’s health and their reproductive status is undeniable and in many ways serves as a barrier for women both professionally and personally. For women in the workplace in particular, pregnancy seems to serve as a major obstacle.
It’s safe to say we have a pretty good sense of the gender dynamics that exist in the workplace – amidst wage gaps, sexual misconduct and the lack of women in leadership – pregnancy is just another hurdle women seem to have to leap over. Women disproportionately bear the brunt of these barriers, between the anxiety they feel about continuing to work through their pregnancy, and the lack of accommodations employers make for pregnant employees.
The fear and anxiety working women feel in regards to their pregnancy seems to be pretty well-founded. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, pregnancy discrimination is still being reported across all industries, races, and states in the United States – even female dominated industries such as education and healthcare.
Women make up about 47% of the U.S. labor force. The majority of U.S. women are working when they become pregnant for the first time, as cited in Lynda Laughlin’s report on Maternity Leave and Employment. While some women return to work shortly after giving birth, many women stop working all together. Choosing to care for one’s child full-time after giving birth is an admirable decision. But feeling forced to do so because of the lack of accommodations made by an employer seems somewhat unreasonable.
We know the pregnancy discrimination act isn’t foolproof, not only because of the reported statistics, but because of the stories that are sadly not uncommon tales.
There are some policies in place that are meant to protect pregnant women in the workforce. The pregnancy discrimination act, for example, was enacted in 1964 and requires women who are pregnant to be treated the same as employees who may have similar limitations or require accommodations. Having policies like this in place are crucial to women ultimately achieving the respect and recognition they deserve professionally. However, the widespread reporting of pregnancy discrimination, as mentioned earlier, seems to highlight the shortfalls that still exist within the pregnancy discrimination act.
A quick google search can send you down a rabbit hole of endless accounts of pregnancy discrimination that are still occurring throughout the country. One of the highest profile cases recently in the news was the UPS vs. Peggy Young, where Young was put on unpaid leave after UPS failed to modify her duties and provide the necessary accommodations for her pregnancy ultimately causing her to lose her healthcare coverage. In 2016, a former Chipotle employee filed a suit against the burrito chain for being fired due to her pregnancy.
And just a couple of months ago, charges were brought up against the Minnesota gym Life Time Fitness when they rescinded a job offer to a qualified applicant after finding out she was pregnant. We know the pregnancy discrimination act isn’t foolproof, not only because of the reported statistics, but because of the stories that are sadly not uncommon tales. As if there aren’t enough difficulties for mothers trying to work postpartum, the widespread reporting of pregnancy discrimination highlights the challenges women who haven’t even given birth yet are facing as well.
The pervasive existence of such explicit bias has an enormous effect on the anxiety and fear many working women report feeling about around pregnancy. These feelings contribute to the shame and stigma that is still largely associated with pregnancy for some women. Now, in particular, it is so important that women are receiving the respect and consideration they deserve professionally. In attaining equality in the workplace, one of the first things that must be addressed are the discriminatory practices related to their reproductive health and status.
Danya Birnbaum is a 2017 Venture for America fellow based in Philadelphia.