Barrier: pregnancy discrimination in the United States


Motherhood is beautiful and should never be a barrier for soon to be mothers.

Katie Knight, Journalism 1 Writer

Kimberly Knight is about to become the receptionist for a local massage therapy clinic. She is a warm and welcoming woman, exactly the type of person you would imagine cheerfully greeting customers at the receptionist’s desk. She only needs to wait for the manager’s call and answer a few questions, then the job is hers.

When the phone rings, she is ready, responding to every inquiry with an intelligent confidence that is sure to impress any employer. She is the perfect candidate.

At least that’s what she thinks. In a matter of seconds, she says something that changes the course of her life, convincing the manager he’ll have to look elsewhere for his receptionist.

What could be so unprofessional, so off putting, that it changed the mind of the man who was a hair’s breadth away from hiring her?

Two words: “I’m pregnant.”

According to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, pregnancy discrimination is, “treating a woman (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of pregnancy, childbirth, or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth.” In a modern society, it should not be allowed to continue.

The consequences of pregnancy discrimination are far-reaching. “An Analysis of U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Charges (Fiscal Years 2011 – 2015)” estimates that, “nearly 31,000 charges of pregnancy discrimination were filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and state-level fair employment practice agencies between October 2010 and September 2015”.

That’s not to say that only 31,000 women faced pregnancy discrimination. Thousands more are forced to keep silent, unable to afford legal consultation or the risk of losing their jobs.

“I think that pregnant women should be treated fairly and the same as other workers,” explains a student who preferred to remain anonymous. “An employer shouldn’t be able to refuse to hire or fire a pregnant woman due to her pregnancy.”

Furthermore, pregnant woman can be conceived as irrational by their coworkers and passed over for promotions as a result. One woman, Erin Murphy, has such an experience. One day, Guy Freshwater, Murphy’s boss, decided to tell everyone in the office about an article called, “Pregnancy alters woman’s brain ‘for at least two years’” that explained how the brain chemistry of a woman changes during and after pregnancy.

The article discusses how new mothers become bonded to their newborns, but Freshwater didn’t mention this to his coworkers. He chose to focus on the fact that pregnant women were “transformed” somehow.  

Murphy, being the only pregnant woman in the building, felt singled out. “It was like my brain had totally changed overnight,” she says.  “I was seen as having no more potential.” For Murphy, it was as though her career had hit a brick wall when she became pregnant, even though there was no evidence to support that she performed any worse  than she did before her pregnancy.

As well as harming a woman’s career, pregnancy discrimination can also cause physical harm to the child. Otisha Woolbright was lifting fifty pound trays of chicken for Walmart when she felt a sharp pain and went to the hospital for fear she was having a miscarriage. It was a false alarm, but to protect the baby, Walmart was forced to put her on light duty work. Soon after this and without notice, Woolbright was fired.

Despite overwhelming evidence against these claims, many employers still believe that women who are pregnant should not be given any any accommodation to assist them. Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for Work-Life Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, says, “When a man has to leave work due, say, to severe nausea incident to chemotherapy, it is something the employer has to live with: It’s seen as the cost of hiring human beings. If a woman has to leave work, say, due to severe nausea incident to pregnancy, she is seen as demanding special treatment.” Men are able to take time off from work without their job being in jeopardy, shouldn’t women should be allowed the same right?

Sophomore Usmi Patel believes this should be the case. “I think that discriminating against pregnant women in the workplace is unjust,” she says. “…if the woman has a medical condition due to her pregnancy, she should be able to take off a few days and still have a job waiting for her.”

Pregnancy discrimination has been illegal for decades, and yet women are constantly shamed in the workplace, made to think they can’t speak out. America is a nation founded upon equality, the idea that everyone is entitled to a voice. Reform in the workplace is long overdue.