Pregnant Workers Facing Discrimination Need a #MeToo Movement

Pregnancy discrimination in the workplace has been illegal for four decades, but employers still use pregnancy as an excuse to push women out of the workforce, especially in blue-collar jobs. Just ask Amanda Van Fleet.

After working for five years for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Van Fleet says she lost her job after her employer refused to provide reasonable accommodations for her pregnancy. “My career and confidence were shattered,” she told Ms. And she isn’t alone: Between 2011 and 2015, women filed over 30,000 pregnancy discrimination cases—and that’s just reported cases.

Dan Hausman / Creative Commons

The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 prohibits employment discrimination based on pregnancy, but it does not require employers to accommodate disabilities resulting from pregnancy. Since then, however, close to half of states and some cities have passed laws directing employers to provide reasonable accommodations of pregnancy—like a stool to sit on during long shifts, access to water or less strenuous or hazardous tasks if available. Many pregnant workers across the country are not covered by these laws—but even if they are, that’s no guarantee that they will be treated fairly.

California is a state with a pregnancy accommodation law, but Van Fleet says she was pushed out of her job after she became pregnant, and that the experience “put her family through hell” and caused her trauma and distress. She fought back because she wants women to be able to speak up about pregnancy discrimination without negative consequences, instead of what she describes as a system of “don’t ask, don’t tell: don’t tell us and you can keep working.”

After Van Fleet made an accommodations request based on her physician’s recommendation, her boss suggested she temporarily resign her position and accept a lower-paid position, which also would have disrupted her health care coverage. She was later told that she could not stay in her position unless she withdrew her request for accommodation, insinuating that she would have to assume liability for any injury she might incur on the job.

Van Fleet went on unpaid leave and eventually left her job. Later, she found out that there was an opening available that would have accommodated her needs—but her employer had refused to offer it to her. And after she filed her complaint, things got worse.

“Once you speak up, you are essentially blackballed,” she explains. “Because I was vocal in asserting my rights I was forced out of a career—by no fault of my own.” Van Fleet, who eventually settled her case but did not get her job back, confessed: “That’s been a hard pill to swallow.” Nevertheless, she insists that women must “stand up and speak up” about pregnancy discrimination.

“For far too long people have stayed quiet,” she declares. “I understand because it’s so heavy. Sometimes staying quiet is the easier route. But in doing so, nothing will change. People need to demand a culture change for working women.”

Prominent feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon agrees. In a recent New York Times op ed, she argues that only “waves of speaking out in conventional and social media” have challenged the “disbelief and trivializing dehumanization” that have sustained sexual harassment:

It is widely thought that when something is legally prohibited, it more or less stops. This may be true for exceptional acts, but it is not true for pervasive practices like sexual harassment, including rape, that are built into structural social hierarchies…If the same cultural inequalities are permitted to operate in law as in the behavior the law prohibits, equalizing attempts—such as sexual harassment law—will be systemically resisted.

A Better Balance, an organization that advocates for expanding pregnancy accommodation laws to more states and improving enforcement of existing laws, recently filed a nationwide class-action lawsuit against Walmart with the National Women’s Law Center for failing to accommodate pregnant workers. But while this work is important, Van Fleet would like to see more resources to support women speaking out about discriminatory treatment to facilitate the kind of cultural change necessary to finally end discriminatory practices like sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination—which have persisted unabated even decades after laws formally prohibited them.

During her ordeal, Van Fleet found the UK-based online community Pregnant Then Screwed, where women “tell their stories anonymously, giving victims a voice, while demonstrating how systemic the problem really is.” But she was not able to find support in her own community. She hopes to develop ways to encourage more women to speak out about their experiences of pregnancy discrimination in order to transform workplace cultures.

“Bottom line, there’s no dollar amount that will make up for time lost,” says Van Fleet. “Pregnancy is such a special time in life and should be one of the happiest times and yet, it was stolen from me when my employer failed to accommodate me. My hope is that no woman will have to endure such a traumatizing ordeal.”

Carrie Baker is Associate Professor and Director of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College.

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