Movements like #MeToo and Time's Up have helped to increase awareness and promote discussions about gender equality. They have also helped gender-related workplace issues, like pregnancy discrimination, take a bigger place in the media spotlight.
It's easy to see why pregnancy discrimination is a problem worthy of our attention—between 2012 and 2022, there were over 33,000 pregnancy discrimination charges filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Continue reading to learn more about what pregnancy discrimination is, how it might show up in the workplace, and how to defend against it.
What is pregnancy discrimination?
The first misconception about pregnancy discrimination is that it only affects people who are currently pregnant. The term expands much further, including unfair treatment because of pregnancy, childbirth, or a pregnancy- or childbirth-related medical condition.
Pregnancy discrimination was made explicitly illegal in the U.S. with the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) in 1978. The PDA “forbids discrimination based on pregnancy when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, such as leave and health insurance, and any other term or condition of employment.” The law protects currently, formerly, and potentially pregnant job applicants and employees.
The next major step to defend against pregnancy discrimination came 30 years later, in 2008, with the expansion of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA was updated to acknowledge that certain pregnancy-related medical conditions could qualify as a disability. As a result, employers are required to make accommodations for people with these conditions.
In addition to the above protections, U.S. lawmakers recently enacted the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), which applies to workplace accommodations. The law requires covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnancy-related medical conditions, from pregnancy to childbirth to postpartum recovery. Some examples of these accommodations include the ability to receive closer parking, additional break time, flexible hours, as well as time off to recover from childbirth or to access abortion care.
To request a workplace accommodation relating to pregnancy, check with your manager or Human Resources (if your organization has an HR department) to see if there are certain procedures you need to follow. Make sure your request clearly states that you need an accommodation, and offer a few options on what that may look like, such as additional break time or the ability to work remotely.
Work with your organization to determine what can best fit both of your needs. And remember: your employer cannot discriminate or retaliate against you because you asked for an accommodation.
Five examples of pregnancy discrimination at work
The PDA clearly defines what discrimination is, but what does it look like in real life? Here are five common examples:
- Not hiring someone who is pregnant. If an employer doesn’t hire you or consider you for a role because you are pregnant or they believe you may become pregnant, that is illegal. The law forbids employers from turning away qualified candidates because they don’t want interruptions in workflow, or based on assumptions of how the candidate will behave during pregnancy and after childbirth.
- Firing a pregnant employee. It doesn’t matter if your manager fires you because he doesn’t believe you can still do your job or because he’s concerned about your health and safety. The law makes it clear that this is unfair and illegal either way.
- Reducing pregnancy-related medical leave. If you have physical limitations due to your pregnancy and require time off, your employer is required to extend the same rights and privileges to you as he would to any other employee. Proper treatment is generally dictated by an organization’s sick leave, temporary disability leave, and other related policies, but the PWFA also requires covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees.
- Harassing or firing an employee for pumping breast milk. The Affordable Care Act requires most employers with more than 50 employees to provide breaks to pump breast milk in a safe, private place aside from the restroom. The only exception here is for employers with fewer than 50 employees, who can prove providing such accommodation would be an “undue hardship” for the company.
- Punishing employees who file pregnancy discrimination complaints. The EEOC reports that this is actually the most common form of pregnancy discrimination. If you are harassed, demoted, or fired because you’ve filed a complaint, this is 100% illegal.
How to protect yourself
As with any case of discrimination, pregnancy discrimination can be hard to prove. If you’re concerned about discrimination at your workplace, it’s essential to document your interactions with your manager and co-workers—both the good and the bad.
- Keep a log of your achievements and contributions at work, as well as your work evaluations and any letters of commendation. This is particularly important because employers will often cite poor job performance—not your pregnancy-related status—as a reason for your treatment.
- Follow whatever protocol your workplace mandates to communicate leave or accommodation requests. Make sure you keep copies of paperwork and emails specific to your requests. These items will support any future complaints you may file.
- If you file a complaint with the EEOC, be aware that you need to do so within 180 days of the discriminatory event.
Curious about other types of discrimination to keep an eye out for? Check out our guide, which outlines 12 Types of Workplace Discrimination, and find out how to move forward if any of these impact you.