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Pregnancy Discrimination Reaches New Heights at America’s Biggest Companies, Despite Claims of Progress

When she got pregnant, Otisha Woolbright asked to stop lifting heavy trays at Walmart. Her boss said she had seen Demi Moore do a flip on TV when she was nearly full-term — so being pregnant was “no excuse.” Ms. Woolbright kept lifting until she got injured.

For years, American companies have broadcast the image of being more welcoming to women. They have offered generous parental leave, built cushy lactation rooms and invested millions of dollars into initiates to retain working mothers.

But these efforts haven’t fixed a very simple problem: Whether a women works on Wall Street or at Walmart, getting pregnant is often the moment they are knocked off the professional ladder.

Throughout the U.S., pregnancy discrimination is widespread. It often begins as soon as a woman is showing, and then lasts through her early years as a mother.

The New York Times reviewed thousands of court and public records, and interviewed dozens of working women, their lawyers, and government officials. Those investigations revealed a clear pattern. Many of America’s biggest and most prestigious companies still systematically marginalize pregnant women. They are passed over for promotions and raises. Any many are fired if they complain.

In physically demanding jobs — where a growing number of women unload ships or hoist boxes — the discrimination can be quite explicit. If she asks to carry a water bottle or take rest breaks, a pregnant women risks losing that job.

In corporate offices, discrimination tends to be more subtle. There is a perception that pregnant women and mothers are less committed, and as a result the more prestigious assignments are withheld, or they’re excluded from client meetings and shorted during bonus season.

Every child a woman has knocks down her hourly wages by 4 percent, according to a 2014 study by the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. On the flip side, Men’s earnings increase by 6 percent when they become fathers, after controlling for experience, education, marital status and hours worked.

Of course, there are many women who decide on their own to step back from their careers when they become mothers. Some want to commit their time and effort to parenting, while others simply can’t afford child care.

But for women who wish to keep working at the same level, having a child often results in an involuntary setback.

In fact, the number of pregnancy discrimination claims filed annually with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been growing every year for two decades now, and has reached an all-time high.

This problem isn’t exclusive to the private sector. In September, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of Stephanie Hicks, who sued the Tuscaloosa police department in Alabama for pregnancy discrimination. Ms. Hicks was lactating at the time, and her doctor noted that her bulletproof vest was too tight present the risk of causing a breast infection. Her superior’s solution was to defiantly give her a vest so baggy it left sections of her torso exposed.

Tens of thousands of women have brought pregnancy discrimination lawsuits against Walmart, Merck, AT&T, Whole Foods, 21st Century Fox, KPMG, Novartis and the law firm Morrison & Foerster. Ironically, all of those companies have pages on their websites boasting about how they celebrate and empower women.

There is strong implicit bias about pregnant women that seems deeply entrenched in our culture. Managers often regard women who are pregnant as less committed, less dependable, less authoritative and more irrational than other female counterparts.

A study conducted by Shelley Correll, a Stanford sociologist, presented hundreds of real-world hiring managers with two résumés from equally qualified women. Half of them signaled that the candidate had a child. The managers were twice as likely to call the apparently childless woman for an interview. Ms. Correll called it a “motherhood penalty.”

“There is a cultural perception that if you’re a good mother, you’re so dedicated to your children that you couldn’t possibly be that dedicated to your career,” Ms. Correll said.

 

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