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Maternity discrimination lawsuits are at an all-time high, with a 31% increase from 1992 to 2005, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This alarming statistic indicates that the U.S. needs to put into place more legal protections for working mothers.
Executive women—many of whom are college-educated and having children later in life after moving up within the corporate ranks—have helped drive the increase in discrimination suits.
Although women have made huge strides in the workplace, a substantial pay gap between the sexes still exists, with women earning, on average, 78¢ for every dollar men make, according to 2007 U.S. Census data. While a number of disparate factors contribute to this figure, it doesn’t help that women face challenges before, during, and after taking maternity leave.
Few companies fire women directly after their pregnancy becomes known, but they may snub these workers in more subtle ways—quietly passing over them for promotions to higher-paying positions and doing nothing to narrow the pay gap.
Some may argue that generous maternity-leave options will give women incentive to take advantage of the companies’ resources such as health insurance while encouraging them to delay returning to work. But many companies offer only unpaid leave. And since most households depend on two incomes, few women can afford to stay home for a long period.
Something else to think about: Most developed countries in the world offer some sort of paid maternity leave to their female employees, anywhere from 60% compensation for 14 weeks in Japan to 80% for up to 18 months in Sweden, split between both parents. Why do we place so little value on the contributions parents make to the well-being of our society? Why should U.S. corporate culture remain at odds with family-oriented women?
Also, the underlying question of this debate neglects another issue for working families that deserves more consideration: paternity leave.
As a mother of two, I understand the challenges of being a pregnant employee—needing time off for doctor’s appointments, morning sickness, and unexpected bed rest (six weeks for me at the end of my first pregnancy). And I understand the importance of spending time bonding with your baby without worrying you will not have a job to return to.
But I am also a human resources attorney who advises companies regarding compliance with employment laws. I am intimately familiar with the laws that protect pregnant employees before and after a baby is born. They are significant and, in my opinion, sufficient.
The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (along with similar, state laws) protects women from discrimination due to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. In addition, federal and state laws offer job protection for pregnant employees who take leave—and protection against retaliation upon their return.
Existing laws prohibit employers from treating pregnant employees differently from similarly situated non-pregnant employees. For example, a company can’t deny a pregnant employee’s request for light duty but grant a similar request to an an employee (male or female) following hernia surgery. Stereotyping is also prohibited—for example, assuming that an employee with no history of attendance problems will be undependable during her pregnancy.
In short, the laws are there, and in-house counsel and human resource professionals generally know about them. More frequently, supervisors are the ones who lack the necessary understanding of these laws.
For this reason, companies must make it clear that managers may not treat pregnant employees less favorably or make negative assumptions about their capabilities. Employers must educate managers about pregnancy entitlements and job protection—and they should denounce any derogatory comments, even jokes, about expectant motherhood,
While working parents like me struggle to balance family and work, employers also struggle to balance business needs against employee demands. There are sufficient federal and state laws to protect working parents and expectant moms. They key is to educate those responsible for compliance.
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