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From Subtle to Hostile: Examples of Pregnancy Discrimination at Work

Written By: Mo Eldessouky Updated On: May 8, 2024 | Read Time: 10 Minutes

ou have the right to both a career and a family life. However, many workplaces, managers, or teams suddenly turn hostile as soon as they become aware of an employee pregnancy.

Many pregnant women are astounded the first time they encounter pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. However, you might be surprised just how common pregnancy discrimination can be – both subtle and overt. 

If you have been affronted by pregnancy discrimination at work, you are not alone – and you have the right to fight back based on California’s legal protections for pregnant workers. Today, we’d like to share several examples of pregnancy discrimination in the workplace to help you gain perspective on both your rights and the strength of your position in fighting for your right to build a family and a career at the same time.

How Employers Usually Get It Wrong for New Mothers 

Pregnancy discrimination remains a pervasive issue in California’s workplaces despite legal protections in place. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. However, one of the most common forms of discrimination we see for pregnant women or those who have just given birth is when complications arise after the birth that require additional time off

Often, employers mistakenly claim that the mother has exhausted all the afforded “protected” leave and then threaten termination if they don’t return by a certain date. While it’s true that the state of California has a limit on how much time a mother can take off and still be expected to return to her same job and title, there are additional laws under FEHA which extend to those who may suffer disabilities or medical conditions following a complicated pregnancy. Additionally, if there is something wrong with the child, there may be additional leave afforded. This is why it’s important to speak to an attorney to understand all the rights afforded to you.

Extended leave, whether for medical or personal reasons, can serve as a reasonable accommodation for mothers under California law. Despite employer misconceptions about exhausted leave entitlements, the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) provides additional protections for individuals experiencing disabilities or medical conditions following complicated pregnancies. This ensures access to necessary time off without facing termination threats. Further leave may also be available in cases concerning the child’s health. Consulting with an attorney is crucial to understand and assert these rights effectively.

Types of Pregnancy Discrimination that Commonly Manifest

Pregnancy discrimination can appear in many different forms. It can appear at different phases of employment and be divided into either personal or policy discrimination types. Let’s take a look at how pregnancy discrimination appears in its many categories.

The Three Phases of Pregnancy Discrimination

  1. Hiring and Pregnancy Discrimination
  2. Discrimination Against Pregnant Workers
  3. Discrimination Upon Returning to Work After Childbirth

An employer is not permitted to ask about your current pregnancy status or your plans to have children, whether or not you are visibly pregnant. If they do so, they may be immediately liable for pregnancy discrimination in the hiring process.

  • Ex: A hiring manager asks a younger female applicant whether she plans to start having children soon, and indicates that women lose professional focus when they have children.
  • Ex: A hiring manager observes that an applicant is visibly pregnant and asks if she’s looking for a job just to get the medical benefits for her childbirth.

An employer may begin to show hostility as soon as they become aware that an employee is pregnant. This can manifest in many different ways, from direct attacks on the pregnancy to increasing abuse that may appear non-related except for the timing. Your employer must also provide reasonable accommodation regarding standing, heavy lifting, and hazardous environments for employees who request pregnancy consideration.

  • Ex: A manager notices that an employee has begun to show their pregnancy and immediately accuses them of abandonment, complaining about the time they will need for leave during the pregnancy and childbirth time period.
  • Ex: An employee informs their manager that they are pregnant and asks for a chair at their workstation. The employee is soon repeatedly written up for performance issues and/or denies them access to a chair.

An employee is not permitted to fire or demote a pregnant employee as a result of their pregnancy, before or after maternity leave.

  • Ex: After an employee informs their manager of pregnancy, the manager reduces their schedule instead of assigning lighter work.
  • Ex: After an employee returns from maternity leave, they are informed that they were replaced, but they can take a lower-paying position if they wish to keep working.

Personal vs Policy

Pregnancy discrimination can also be divided between personal harassment and policies that target or disadvantage pregnant workers. Personal attacks often take the form of comments, mistreatment, and individual managerial abuses such as write-ups, denial of accommodation, or disadvantageous reassignment.

  • Ex: A new employee in a training class is frequently accused of having “pregnancy brain” when they make a mistake or ask a question during training, while the mistakes of others are tolerated and gently corrected.
  • Ex: Coworkers continue to steal the chair of a pregnant employee, make fun of them for visiting the restroom, and criticize them for any lifestyle choice.

Policy discrimination either targets pregnant employees or overtly ignores how a policy might disadvantage employees who are pregnant or have parental obligations.

  • Ex: A policy rewards employees who do not take long unpaid leaves, which specifically excludes anyone who takes a full-length maternity leave.
  • Ex: A “no exceptions” policy which overtly disadvantages people with mobility disabilities, including those in the later stages of pregnancy.

The Subtle Signs of Pregnancy Discrimination

One of the biggest problems with pregnancy discrimination is that it is often subtle, yet persistent and demoralizing. This can happen because the perpetrators know that the discrimination is wrong and illegal or because they don’t realize that they are expressing negative and unwanted feelings consistently to and about a pregnant coworker.

Subtle signs of pregnancy disability include negative comments, pushing stereotypes, guilt-tripping, and even unwanted positivity. It may also include pregnancy discrimination that is masked as normal workplace operations.

Unwanted Commentary

Unwanted commentary can be any form of hostility or even persistent mentioning of the pregnancy. An employee who continues to mention the pregnancy in a derisive tone of voice can be harassment. Someone who continually criticizes the mother for her choices is harassing, and someone who subtly accuses the mother of mistakes due to their pregnancy is harassing.

  • Ex: After an employee shares their pregnancy, their manager begins to make constant negative comments regarding the employee’s personal life and choice to be a working mother,
  • Ex: A pregnant employee reports their coworker for constantly making hostile and offensive jokes about their pregnancy. The coworker is reprimanded, but they insist that their jokes are lighthearted, and the jokes continue unchecked. Others begin to join in, making the pregnant employee increasingly uncomfortable.

Stereotype Harassment

Trying to force a pregnant employee into a stereotype is another very common yet subtle form of pregnancy discrimination.  This can be true whether the stereotype seems positive or negative, or even if the comments are considered helpful from the harasser’s perspective.

  • Ex: After a manager becomes aware of their employee’s pregnancy, they begin insisting that the employee sit constantly, do only simple tasks, and avoid any tough mental work because of “pregnancy brain”.
  • Ex: A coworker of an employee begins suggesting that they will soon take the person’s position and projects because they won’t want to come back to work after having their first child.

Guilt-Tripping and Complaining

Many, many bosses seem to take pregnancy personally, accusing their employees of shirking their duties or abandoning them as they anticipate the maternity leave ahead. They may complain constantly about the pregnancy or the upcoming leave or try to guilt-trip the employee about their pregnancy, even though the matter is already in motion.

  • Ex: A normally supportive manager starts whining and complaining about how they’ll get through while their pregnant employee is out on maternity leave. They don’t stop at just once, they complain every day and at every meeting, creating a toxic emotional environment at work.
  • Ex: A hostile manager starts suggesting that an employee will be replaced if they take a long maternity leave or accusing the employee of getting pregnant on purpose to avoid specific work.

Unwanted Touching and Pushy Positivity

Even positivity can turn into pregnancy discrimination and a form of harassment. Many pregnant women deal with people touching their belly without permission and giving unrelenting unwanted advice or criticism during their pregnancy at work.

  • Ex: A manager comments negatively on a pregnant employee’s choice of lunch, activities, and lifestyle choices while giving unwanted and stereotypical advice about what it means to be a good mother.
  • Ex: A pregnant employee reports their coworker for constant unwanted touching of their belly, and nothing is done. The coworker continues to touch the employee’s belly several times a day while asking about the pregnancy.

Masked Disciplinary Discrimination

Lastly, managers will sometimes become hostile toward a pregnant employee, but mask that hostility as normal disciplinary measures. It is very common for pregnant employees to be written up and demoted for reasons the employer claims to be normal, but clearly veer from normal procedures or standards.

  • Ex: Soon after a manager learns their employee is pregnant, the employee is repeatedly written up for performance issues that others are not.
  • Ex: Though bathroom breaks have always been on employee discretion, an employee known to be pregnant is issued a limited number of bathroom breaks per day and is disciplined for taking more.

Overt Signs of Workplace Pregnancy Discrimination

Discrimination against pregnant employees is illegal by federal law, and California law provides even more detailed protections. For these reasons, overt pregnancy discrimination tends to be more rare, but also extremely obvious when it occurs.

Examples of overt pregnancy discrimination signs include patterns of demotion and abuse for pregnant employees, a hostile company culture regarding pregnancy, pregnancy-adverse policies, and blatant refusal to comply with legal requirements to accommodate pregnant employees.

Patterns of Abuse

Overt pregnancy discrimination is easy to see when patterns emerge. If every pregnant employee in a company or department is demoted, scheduled for fewer hours, or fired shortly after announcing their pregnancy for “performance issues”, the discrimination is difficult to hide.

  • Ex: The last three employees who became visibly pregnant were written up for performance issues and quickly fired after the pregnancy became visible.
  • Ex: Pregnant employees who return from maternity leave are never returned to full hours and are routinely assigned to undesirable tasks until they quit.

Hostile Company Culture

Some company cultures are inherently hostile to pregnancy and parenthood. These are often “rat race” cultures that demean anyone who focuses on the “life” half of work-life balance but can include a culture of strong stereotypes where mothers are not believed to belong in the workplace or be valuable workers.

  • Ex: Both mothers and fathers who take parental leave are derided for their lack of commitment and have assignments taken away from them. Coworker harassment is tolerated and even encouraged by management.
  • Ex: Strong gender stereotypes in the workplace result in pregnant mothers being encouraged to quit to raise their children while fathers are given raises to “take care of their family”.

Pregnancy-Adverse Policies

Some company policies are built without consideration for pregnancy, while others are overtly hostile to the limitations and requirements of a pregnant employee in the later stages of the condition.

  • Ex: Employees are required to wear a specific uniform with the shirt neatly tucked in. A new uniform is not issued to accommodate a pregnancy bump, and pregnant employees are written up for being out of dress code if the shirt is not buttoned or tucked.
  • Ex: Yearly bonuses are denied to any employee who takes a long leave during the year, despite objective annual performance.

Blatantly Illegal Discriminatory Policies

Some companies blatantly ignore the laws protecting pregnant employees (and often other protected individuals) to maintain their toxic internal policies. These often include denial of any disability accommodation.

  • Ex: A visibly pregnant employee begins sitting to perform certain tasks during the work day. Their manager then removes all the once-normal chairs from the work area to stop them from sitting.
  • Ex: A hiring manager overtly asks female employees whether they plan to have children and if they care about their careers more than building a family.

Preparing Your Pregnancy Discrimination Case

If you are currently facing pregnancy discrimination or have returned from maternity leave with a clear view of your recent treatment, the  California employment attorneys of Eldessouky Law are here to help. Not only can you fight for your own rights to fair treatment as you pursue both a family and career, but you can also take a stand to prevent future mistreatment of other pregnant employees in your company.

There are two important steps in preparing your case.

Collect Evidence of Discrimination

  • Keep a record of discriminatory remarks, policies, and assignment changes
  • Collect witnesses and witness statements
  • Identify patterns in the treatment of other pregnant employees

First, collect evidence, or get the ball rolling. Your lawyer can help you acquire a full portfolio of evidence, but your own experiences and communication records will likely comprise the bulk of your case. Keep records, get it in writing, and ally with witnesses who are equally appalled at the way you have been treated. 

You can also identify patterns in how you were treated with the way other mothers, current and in the recent past, have been treated in regards to their pregnancy or need for family leave.

Pregnancy Discrimination in California in a Nutshell:

Pregnancy discrimination persists in California workplaces despite legal safeguards. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, yet many pregnant women face discrimination when complications arise post-birth, necessitating additional leave. Employers may wrongly claim exhausted leave entitlements, but FEHA offers additional protections for those with disabilities following complicated pregnancies. Extended leave, a reasonable accommodation under California law, ensures access to necessary time off without risking termination, with further leave available for child-related health issues. Consulting an attorney is vital to understand and assert these rights effectively.

Hire an Employment Lawyer to Pursue Your Case

When you’re ready, consult with an employment lawyer to review your case and prepare to take your employer to task. Many employers settle out before a discrimination case reaches court, but building a strong case is essential whether you go to court or not.

Your employment lawyer will help you compile your evidence, build a strategy, and take the necessary steps to file a civil discrimination case against your employer.

Defend Your Rights to Work and Family Life with Eldessouky Law

The pregnancy discrimination lawyers of Eldessouky Law are here to defend your rights as an employee and as a parent. California has created profound legal protections for pregnant employees and working parents, and we will help you defend your right to an unharassed career as you also choose to build your family. Contact us today for a consultation and we will get started together.

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