4 Types of Discrimination Mothers Face (and What to Do)

Guest contributed by Sarah Landrum


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Many women are faced with the struggle of feeling like they need to choose between family and career. Unfortunately, the feeling that new mothers are unable to perform their duties goes further than just a societal stereotype — it’s a sentiment that infests businesses at all levels.

New mothers or expecting mothers face all kinds of discrimination in the workplace, holding them back from achieving their career goals, even though these acts of discrimination may be illegal.

Understanding what kinds of discrimination a new or expecting mother may face is important for any woman hoping to grow her family and her career simultaneously. Whether you’re hoping to have a child soon or you’ve just had a baby, here are a few of the most prevalent forms of discrimination – and what you can do to fight it.

  1. Pregnancy Discrimination and Work Advancement

Under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers can’t legally discriminate against job applicants or employees based on race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or age. Under this law, pregnancy is considered a form of gender discrimination.

Despite this protection, almost 31,000 women had to file pregnancy discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission between the years 2011 and 2015.

With pregnancy discrimination lawsuits making up over 18% of the EEOC’s Title VII suits in 2014, it’s important to know what constitutes pregnancy discrimination. If an employer is refusing to hire or promote a pregnant woman or has fired a woman for being pregnant, these are all forms of pregnancy discrimination.

What many women don’t know is that this includes failure to accommodate pregnancy, not allowing women to pump at work or retaliating against pregnancy employees. Most states require companies to provide reasonable accommodations to employees based on the needs of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. This may include providing a stool for employees who typically stand during the day or even moving an employee’s desk closer to the bathroom.

  1. Pregnancy Discrimination and Harassment

Women face many different kinds of harassment in the workplace, and harassment over pregnancy isn’t that much different. Pregnancy harassment is a form of sexual harassment, which is illegal and should not be tolerated. People like to talk about pregnancy, but if that discussion crosses a line into how you became pregnant or implies anything negative about you for becoming pregnant, it becomes sexual harassment.

Harassment can come from many different places, including from clients, customers, employees, supervisors and coworkers. No matter where the harassment is coming from, be sure to follow the proper steps to file a sexual harassment case at work.

  1. Pregnancy Discrimination and Maternal Leave

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives new parents 12 weeks of job-protected time away from work after having or adopting a child, though it is unpaid. During this 12 weeks, your employer is not allowed to permanently fill your position or they must be able to offer you an equivalent position when your leave is over.

This law doesn’t cover everyone — only 55.9% of workers are covered under FMLA. That means almost two in five women do not have any federally protected maternity leave.

For women serious about advancing their career, it is tempting to take a short maternity leave and get back to work quickly. While this is fine for some, others may find it can have negative consequences on their health and some infants have higher needs at birth than others.

  1. Pregnancy Discrimination and Short-term Disability

In situations where women aren’t covered by FMLA, taking short-term disability offers a way to take time off work for pregnancy and post-natal care. You don’t have to have a pregnancy complication or be unable to do your duties in a traditional sense. It may feel like a misnomer to pregnant women who aren’t disabled, but it can offer the necessary time-off that is legally protected.

Women may face discrimination in the workplace from needing to take this short-term disability leave either for a traditional pregnancy or one with conditions or complications related to their pregnancy or for the labor and delivery itself.

Businesses can’t treat short-term disability leave for pregnancy differently than another employee taking short-term disability for an illness, the care of a sick family member or another condition. If a woman returns to work after having her child and is fired, demoted or retaliated against for taking time off, these may be forms of discrimination.

With 42% of household breadwinners being mothers, it feels like we’re moving in the right direction to becoming a society that accepts women who are both mothers and professionals. But for those who dream of having both the family and the career, there are still many challenges they may face day-to-day.

Advancing your career and growing your family depends on knowing the signs of discrimination and the various laws protecting women and their right to procreate. If you feel you’ve been passed over for a job, ignored for a promotion or even penalized for wanting to become pregnant or becoming pregnant, be sure to follow the proper protocols for making a discrimination case.

To begin creating your case, talk with the HR department. They should be ready and willing to point you in the right direction of forms, paperwork and other important pieces of filing your claim. If you’re unable to talk with your HR department or they are unhelpful, you can go straight to the EEOC.

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