If you have been following the Democratic presidential race at all, you may have heard Elizabeth Warren’s claim that, in 1971, she was forced out of a job as a teacher because she was pregnant. At that time, pregnancy wasn’t a characteristic protected by federal anti-discrimination laws. It wasn’t until 1978 that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) to prohibit pregnancy discrimination.
Have 41 years of the PDA wiped out pregnancy discrimination? No. Have things changed for the better? Almost certainly. That said, the EEOC received 2,790 charges of pregnancy discrimination last year. That number doesn’t include cases that were filed with state human rights agencies, or situations where discrimination may have occurred, but no complaint was filed.
Other than the relatively short period of time when a mother is actually on leave for and after birth, what objections to employers have to employees who are or who might become pregnant?
“At some psychological level, there’s a paradigm of what an efficient workplace is,” one law professor commented to the Associated Press. He prosecuted one of the first pregnancy discrimination cases ever tried in the U.S. “Women even potentially becoming pregnant disrupts that workflow.”
Changes that could reduce pregnancy discrimination
In today’s society, attitudes towards pregnancy are evolving. For example, fathers are taking more parental leave, which could level the playing field somewhat. If men and women were equally likely to take leave after a child’s birth or adoption, it would be harder to argue that the leave is disruptive.
The hot job market could also help pregnant women. As the market tightens, many employers are looking to make longer-term investments in their employees. Firing someone for pregnancy is essentially a short-term reaction, since the actual leave taken is typically no longer than three months. And, workplaces that are more accommodating toward pregnancy are likely to retain more employees.
The law on accommodating pregnancy has evolved, as well. At the federal level, the courts have tended to grant disability-style accommodations for short-term pregnancy-related needs such as shorter hours or extra breaks. Several states have pregnancy discrimination laws that are more comprehensive than the PDA.
Unfortunately for women, pregnancy discrimination can be hard to prove. If you believe you have suffered pregnancy discrimination at work, you should discuss your situation with an experienced employment law attorney who can dig into the facts and help you protect your rights.