Nine Months of Catch-22: Working While Pregnant

Daly Trimble | Contributor

With women flooding the workforce, the world is starting to look pretty good for the young professional gal.  Despite a troubling election result, American women are still cracking through the glass ceiling, outnumbering male students enrolled in higher education, and becoming the first generation that out-earns its male counterparts.  I live on a floor with girls who paint their toenails while studying advanced calculus.  I work in a lab that has an almost exclusively female team. Young and single women are running faster, dreaming bigger, and speaking with more assurance and less concern for permission than any prior period in American history. But what happens when my generation gets just a bit older?  What happens when we get pregnant?  What if we have already?

These are worthy questions, given that two-thirds of women and many nonbinary parents in the workforce will become pregnant at some point in their careers.  Powering through work during the third trimester is also becoming commonplace for pregnant individuals, with 82% of first-time women working through their eighth month of pregnancy.  The short answer to these questions is that yes, the United States has made many positive gains and accommodations for working moms-to-be.  The more complex answer is that it still has so much work left to do to prevent unfair and unnecessary obstacles to the professional tracks of working people, particularly those who do not identify as “moms” or who do not have a very specific kind of job.

Since passing the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, an extension of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, women are technically protected from workforce discrimination stemming from the possibility or reality of pregnancy.  According to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, PDA “forbids discrimination based on pregnancy when it comes to any other aspect of employment, including pay, job assignments, promotions, layoffs, training, fringe benefits, firing, and any other term or condition of employment.”  In short, pregnancy should not affect your being hired or fired, nor should symptoms be treated as anything different or more blameworthy than a temporary employee disability.

While this sounds like (and is) a large step for future parents, implementation falls badly short.  In a 2006 examination of PDA, the organization National Advocates for Pregnant Women estimated that a third of employed women are not covered under the parameters of the act.  The laws do not apply to businesses with fewer than 15 people, nor are they applicable for women who work part-time.  This is especially problematic for low-income women who make a full week of work by piecing together several part-time jobs.  Fear of repercussion also very likely leads to underreporting of violations, given that pregnant women are already perceived to perform tasks with less competence than men and often cannot risk sacrificing good recommendations from their employers.  

Still more concerning is the lack of protections for nonbinary or same-sex parents, aside from an extension of family legal protections towards the LGBTQIA+ community set forth by the Obama administration. Data regarding nonbinary parents in the workforce is virtually nonexistent, and it is not guaranteed that, considering the stringency of word usage in legislation, laws protecting “women” would apply to pregnant individuals who do not identify as such.

Problems compound with the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which gives everyone the opportunity to take 12 unpaid weeks of leave to care for a newborn, a medically dependent immediate relative, or a personal health situation.  However, qualifying for a right to 12 weeks is dependent upon the business having more than 50 employees and the individual having either worked full-time for at least a year or accrued 1,250 labor hours.  This is again especially problematic for not just low-income mothers but any individual in a caregiver role. FMLA does not apply for the Federal government, private clubs, or religious organizations, and if the business is downsizing while the employee is on leave, that person’s job can be cut without penalty.

Despite their best intentions, these policies fail to prevent meaningless limitations on women’s careers and incomes.  They do not acknowledge the reality of female workers heading some of the poorest American households, nor do they offer laws that are explicit enough to beat discriminating work cultures.  The absence of paid leave doubles as both a societal harm and statistical joke – the only other countries with unpaid maternity leave in the world are Swaziland, Lesotho, and Papua New Guinea.  While more commonplace internationally, the absence of paternity leave doubly complicates post-baby plans by reinforcing dated stereotypes and needlessly limiting family choice.

Combine all this with the fact that childcare is so expensive (in Pennsylvania, infant care costs equate to 15.8% of the median family income and 70.6% of minimum wage earnings) and the mystery of women “leaning out” is solved.  Mothers often leave because they want to care for children, but there is still an unreported number of women who have to upset their professional stream, take a financial hit, or get hooked off the stage because pregnancy is an employer inconvenience.  The best solution?  Treat working parents and their families as the vital national resources that they are.  Encourage people who have made it to the top to install footholds for those still climbing.   Abide by management strategies that respect work-life balance.  Doing so will maximize the potential of young parents as they move to the next phases of their lives.