In November 2013, the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the U.K. launched a major investigation into the discrimination faced by pregnant women in the workplace. According to a press release, the new project intends to investigate workplace practices and explore the causes and effects of pregnancy and maternity discrimination.
Equality and Human Rights Commission Chief Executive Mark Hammond said in the release, “It is very concerning that in 2013 a number of women are still being disadvantaged in the workplace just because they are pregnant. That would be unlawful discrimination and needs to be tackled.”
Discrimination at Senior Executive Levels
How does pregnancy discrimination apply to women working at senior executive levels, or for Fortune 500 companies? Clearly, women can face discrimination in office settings and it often takes shape in the form of a lack of pay raises, promotions, and recruitment.
Stephanie Mizzell Gossman works for Georgia Power under the Fortune 500 company Southern Company and she says she’s witnessed men in the workplace working hard to understand what a pregnant employee needs, though it’s her belief that a study would be needed to better understand the reason for pregnancy discrimination.
“I do think a study in the U.S. would be beneficial,” she said. “My opinion based on my experiences is that any discrimination against pregnant working women probably stems from a level of awkwardness, since most men feel awkward even when their wives or partners are pregnant, let alone a coworker.”
Susie Sheehey, who previously worked for Fortune 500 company Owens & Minor, says she experienced discrimination from clients, but was treated fairly and generously by her employer.
“They [clients] thought that I wouldn’t come back to work after my child was born, so while I was pregnant and still working, they didn’t take my proposals or suggestions as seriously,” Sheehey explained. “In fact, towards the latter part of my pregnancy, several customers outright cancelled our standing appointments because they didn’t think I could follow through on their needs since I would be ‘out of commission’ soon.”
Accommodating Pregnant Workers is Good for Business
The U.S. keeps data on the number of pregnancy discrimination charges filed, which includes 5,797 in 2011. A June 2013 report by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and A Better Balance argues that accommodating pregnant workers is not only fair, but also good for business.
According to the report, “Based on substantial research demonstrating the positive business impact associated with workplace flexibility and accommodating workers with disabilities, employers that accommodate pregnant workers can anticipate increased employee commitment and satisfaction, increased recruitment and retention of employees, increased productivity, increased safety, increased diversity, and reduced absenteeism.”
Laws differ depending on state and according to Lisa Maatz, Vice President of Government Relations for the American Association of University Women (AAUW), it’s not fair to have someone in one state receive accommodations, and someone in another state not.
“I think there’s always been a patchwork of laws because there’s been a federal standard, and then states can do what they want in various areas. But at the same time, it’s something as fundamental as pregnancy, as motherhood – something that literally is necessary for our economy and the future of society. This isn’t rocket science. This is really common sense,” Maatz said.
Despite it being common sense, Maatz says antiquated notions regarding pregnancy and work performance still rule at some companies, making the case that existing laws need to be improved and employers need to be educated.
“At the end of the day, if businesses want to succeed, they have to have women employees. There’s no getting around it,” Maatz said. “There are also great studies out there showing that the companies that have women, particularly women in higher positions, actually make more money. This isn’t just a feel-good, moral justice kind of an issue, although it is. It’s more than that. It’s just good for the bottom line.”