This is an article in our Pregnancy Week by Week series, a resource to help you manage your job and life, through and after your pregnancy.
Week 23: What To Do If You Think You're Being Discriminated Against
Pregnancy discrimination is no laughing matter. It affects countless women around the world and harms their livelihoods and families’ finances. So we were surprised to find ourselves smiling when we found a website on the topic. The reason? The genius name of the site and project: “Pregnant Then Screwed.”
Our friend Joeli Brearly first launched Pregnant Then Screwed in the U.K. after a nightmare situation. When she told her boss that she was 4 weeks pregnant, they said, “Congratulations, but we are really concerned about how this will affect our charity.” The next day, Joeli says “they sacked me by voicemail.”
You can imagine how she felt. She describes herself as “shocked, angry and utterly heartbroken. Being 4 months pregnant and unemployed is a terrifying position to find yourself in, and my confidence was on the floor and I believed that my career was over.”
After she had her baby and joined parenting groups, Joeli realized she was far from alone as she slowly shared her story with other moms. She’s since launched U.S. and Spanish versions of Pregnant Then Screwed, and her project is a platform for women to expose and gain support for some of the injustices that pregnant and postpartum women experience at work.
As you can imagine, the anonymous stories on Pregnant Then Screwed are sad and terrible. Here are just two examples:
I had a legal position at a U.S. company before I became pregnant. I was promoted and given raises and bonuses regularly. I was praised for my good work, friendly attitude, and the executives liked my ivy-league educational background. My boss often told me that they were grooming me to take over her role (the senior-most legal position)...Then, while I was still on maternity disability leave, they eliminated my position and laid me off. (As I knew from my own work in the legal department, “position elimination” was a cover-your-legal-ass way to lay people off when you were worried that they might sue you.) Lo and behold, for the 6 months after they “eliminated” my position, they continued to employ the temporary guy who was hired for my maternity leave. Then they hired him into my former position, which had supposedly been eliminated...I would’ve sued, but instead I threatened to sue and reached a monetary settlement.
I worked for a local newspaper in Ohio when I found out I was pregnant. I pushed myself as a reporter and as my pregnancy progressed, I started having complications like swelling...That was when I was placed on bed rest and was unable to return to work. It was less than two months before my due date. I received short term disability while off and when I gave birth, it turned into an emergency c-section. As with most c-sections, I was off work for eight weeks after birth. When I informed my boss, I told him that perhaps I could work part time for a couple of weeks and then transition back into full time at 8 weeks. I was told that they couldn’t possibly not have a full time reporter for two more weeks...and I was told to clear my desk and that my position was terminated.
Joeli says that what’s surprised her the most about the stories women have shared is that they all “demonstrate the systematic devaluing of care. A pregnant woman is...dehumanized, they are a problem, a potential threat to a company’s productivity.” And she says the worst stories are those of women who’ve been so stressed that they’ve had their babies prematurely or suffered in their mental health.”
So what should you do if you think you’ve experienced pregnancy discrimination?
First, Joeli advises that you write everything down. Keep good notes and records about incidents and hold on to any email or performance review that indicates you’re doing a good job. Regardless of whether you ever use this paperwork in a lawsuit, keep them for yourself and any conversations you plan on having with your HR department or manager.
Second, we are big believers in getting educated quickly about your rights. Pregnant women are a protected class under the law (at least if you work for an employer with at least 15 employees) and are entitled to certain protections and accommodations. We get it: you’re probably more busy thinking about your health and baby than legal rights, so here’s a “totally non-boring guide” to get you started.
Third, consider non-legal ways to address the issue. Joeli says that sometimes addressing problems “head on can solve the problem” which may be simply due to misunderstanding and poor communication.
Can you discuss your situation with your manager (or your boss’ manager) or talk to your HR department? If so, you may be able to solve the problem. Other times, this isn’t an option because the culture is not supportive or the politics too difficult. You know your workplace dynamics and personalities better than anyone else.
Finally, consult a lawyer about your situation. Usually an initial consultation is free, or you can approach a non-profit organization like American Association for University Women or the American Civil Liberties Union for a referral. An attorney will help you better understand the risks, costs and likelihood of success.
For most of us, suing our employer is the last thing we want to do. Not only is there great financial and emotional expense involved, but discrimination can also be difficult to prove. Still, sometimes you may have no choice. Pregnancy discrimination lawsuits are on the uptick. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, over 5,000 pregnancy discrimination lawsuits were filed in 2013. That’s up from under 4,000 in 1997. Just remember that you typically have to make a decision about taking legal action within 180 days.
Whatever you decide, you can always get some moral support from our community or the women sharing their stories on Pregnant Then Screwed. Hang in there!
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