“Back then, you had to be married for nine months before delivering your baby or your maternity insurance wouldn’t kick in.”
That’s what BJ, who was living in Connecticut in 1971 and working as a bank teller, remembers about her first pregnancy. After she started to show, she had to work at a back desk away from the customers, she writes. Now living in North Carolina, BJ is one of the hundreds of women and men who wrote to us after CNN Opinion invited readers to share their experiences with pregnancy discrimination. When thinking about her own life and those of her three daughters and their pregnancies, she said, “We have come a long way.”
When it emerged that Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren may have faced job discrimination over a pregnancy, the backlash against the claim was swift. One reason Warren’s story of pregnancy discrimination prompted such an outcry from Americans on social media earlier this month and from so many of you in response to our call for stories is that for many American women — and men — the Pregnancy Discrimination Act feels too much like a historical footnote and little else. The Act amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to “prohibit sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbrth, or related medical conditions.” Before it was signed into law in 1978, it was perfectly legal to refuse to hire, or to fire, a woman because of pregnancy.
Women who, like BJ, were working parents in the 1960s and 1970s, described what it was like seeking work as a woman of childbearing years before 1978; they recalled having to show prospective employers their birth control pills or disclose the dates of their last period to prove they weren’t pregnant or wouldn’t try to get pregnant if hired. Other women shared heartbreaking stories with us, ones not consigned to the pre-1978 past. Companies denying benefits after a stillbirth, demanding employees return to work one week after delivery.
For those women, it might come as no surprise to consider that as recently as this year, federal courts have been called upon to adjudicate pregnancy discrimination cases; in 2015, UPS lost a pregnancy discrimination case before the Supreme Court (in a decision that united Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Samuel Alito, two justices with very different judicial worldviews).
As recently as 2007, Melanie K. — who worked for a staffing company and was a 39-year-old mother herself — reported a client telling her, “Don’t bring me any women who are going to have kids.” When she asked in disbelief for clarification, her client — a national company seeking IT professionals– reiterated: “Avoid any woman of child-bearing age.”
Several years after Melanie’s experience, Becca K., of Cleveland, recalled her boss’s words to her when she returned from maternity leave after her second child. She needed to “dial it back to basics while getting back into the swing of things” because “changing diapers for three months isn’t the same thing as managing a multimillion-dollar business.” For Laura Astorino of Massachusetts, the comments came from a founding partner at the firm where she worked (and where she was told she couldn’t have a raise since she was going on maternity leave): he called employees with children “breeders.”
For women today, pregnancy discrimination is “is real, it is harrowing, and it is wrong,” wrote our op-ed contributor Kara Alaimo.
These stories of pregnancy discrimination weren’t just about pregnancy — they were also about miscarriage. They were also about adoption. They were also about supporting a pregnant partner.
Jeff from Provo, Utah — now a stay-at-home dad and a writer — was a college student when his wife lost the baby she was carrying. He described being told by one of his professors that he could only take time away from class if he provided his wife’s medical documentation.
Angela from Oklahoma, wrote: “I adopted my daughter at birth and I was basically told I wasn’t going to get FMLA [12 unpaid weeks for employees who qualify under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993] for a decision I was making. However, the company policy would have allowed me to take time off if I had a drug problem, etc. Just not to take care of my child, because I CHOSE to have her, because I didn’t give birth to her. I also CHOSE to leave that company.”
CNN Opinion reached out to you because Elizabeth Warren put pregnancy discrimination in the public eye and we wanted to know how you felt about it. Your willingness to share your most intimate, painful experiences humbled and honored us. Your responses showed us that for so many Americans — past and present — who are working to bring families into the world and support them, there are no easy answers.
Here is a further sampling of your responses. Some have been lightly edited for clarity and flow, and the views belong to the authors.
“She’s taken full advantage”
In 1996, I was a 4th year attorney starting a new job with a well-respected boutique firm in Houston. On my first day, one of the named partners took me to lunch. As we were entering the elevator, a visibily pregnant woman was exiting and the partner introduced her to me as one of their associates. Once on the elevator, he snidely said to me, “This is Catherine’s third child. She’s taken full advantage of our maternity leave program.” I’ve never forgotten that comment or his tone and it definitely was in mind when I had my first, and only, child a few years later while still at the firm. I felt pressured to do a fair amount of work remotely during my 3 months of leave, so as to not damage my chance at partnership, which I eventually got. Catherine never made partner and eventually left, as I did in 2007.
Sherri Wagner, Houston, TX
I’m due in January. Things need to change
In 2011, I discovered I was pregnant after starting a new job. I work in a male-dominated field, and my pregnancy seemed to confuse my male bosses. My employer’s response was, “I’ve been in this industry for 10 years and I’ve never heard of such a thing!” I assure you, my reproductive system works the same way as any other woman’s. They didn’t want to work with me on appointments. They didn’t understand why I needed to miss hours for glucose tolerance testing, an amniocentesis, my anatomy scan. They were upset I could no longer lift 50 pounds or more.
I live in a state that isn’t really pro-women’s rights. I’d been on the job for 6 months when I was placed on modified bed rest for the last 4 weeks of my pregnancy. My company kept my job open. However, when I finally delivered, I was expected to return to work just two weeks later. I had a difficult delivery, and my doctor wouldn’t authorize a return to work until 8 weeks postpartum. I didn’t qualify for FMLA.
I lost that position. I was a single parent. The loss of income was devastating. I had to put my children on Medicaid to insure them. We went on SNAP for a while. In the end, I spent 18 months as a stay-at-home parent, and I cherish that time. But I’d rather have been employed.
Now, in 2019, seven years later, I find myself in the exact same position. I started a new job and discovered I was pregnant. Nothing has changed. If anything, the current environment is even more hostile to mothers in the workplace. I work for a really good company, so that helps, but I still find myself with no job protection. I still don’t qualify for FMLA. My state still has no provision for pregnant women. Health care costs have skyrocketed, and as have the costs of having a baby.
I’m due in January. Things need to change. This country is lacking in women’s rights. Many mothers would love to stay home with their new baby for a year [as other countries mandate in terms of paid leave]. We simply can’t afford to. At the very least, we need a maternity program that isn’t dependent on how long you’ve been working. Let us collect Social Security during that time. If our employers can’t afford to hold our jobs, which is especially hard for smaller companies, let us collect unemployment. Humanity literally depends on women having babies. It’s time for this country to realize that.
Sarah S., Texas
Men are also punished
When my wife was pregnant with our third child, we had some significant health scares for the baby requiring weekly ultrasounds. I didn’t miss more work than I had sick time, but I used my accrued sick leave to help take care of my wife and children when needed. When the opportunity for promotion came up, my supervisor told me that they needed someone more dependable and that because I had taken so much time off to care for my family, I wouldn’t be eligible. (I also never took time off for this without finding someone to cover as well.) I am sure that it is worse for the women who are pregnant, but men who actually take time off for pregnancy/paternity leave are also punished.
Adam V., St. Louis, Missouri
Discrimination isn’t the problem. Entitlement is
Having a child as a working parent is difficult. I know because I have two children. Both were delivered via Caesarian and I was fortunate to have eight weeks with each baby after delivery. Before deciding to have children, consideration was given to the time and effort required to raise a child. It became glaringly apparent that parenting would not come without sacrifice. Never did my employer indicate that pregnancy, nursing or parenting would impact my job. Had they suggested that, I would not have blamed them. I spent 9 months mostly in the office bathroom vomiting (pre-delivery) and a significant amount of time pumping when I returned from maternity leave. Guess what, my male cohorts didn’t.
I am not denying that there are ignorant people out there, but I think the prevalent problem facing us is that of entitlement. We want to be successful career women, but don’t want to sacrifice having children. We want to have children, but expect to be given advantages, excuses, for sub-par performance. The reality is that life is about choices. I have made mine after careful consideration. Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine. This is my experience. Please consider it as valid before dismissing it because it doesn’t align with your storyline.
Hanna R., California
Pregnant? You still have to lift a Labrador retriever
I worked as a veterinary technician and was told that while they understood I could no longer assist with X-rays, I was expected to continue lifting dogs up to 75 lbs by myself and that I would not be allowed extra breaks or time off during my pregnancy. I considered quitting, but felt certain that another veterinary establishment would choose not to hire me if they knew I was pregnant.
Amanda B., Cincinnati, OH
What it was like the year the Pregnancy Discrimination Act became law
In 1978, I was a 21-year-old female interviewing for my first management position after college. I remember, distinctly, making it to the final round of interviews with four different corporations in which the hiring manager doing the final interview was always a white male. In three of the four interviews, I was asked when I was planning to get married and have children. My response was I wasn’t in a relationship and couldn’t see that happening for many years to come. After convincing them my career was my priority, each of these men followed up with a sentiment similar to, “Of course you understand why we have to ask that question. Training new management recruits and investing in their careers is expensive. If you were to go off and start having babies, you wouldn’t be able to give us the same level of commitment.” I was offered a position with all four corporations; I accepted a position with the corporation that never approached that question.
Paula Jenkins, Florida (lived in Kentucky and Ohio at the time of these events)
You’re forced to choose and live with the consequences
I was a married PhD student. When my dissertation director found out I was expecting my first child, he was furious. “You can’t have a baby AND write a dissertation. It can’t be done,” he said. I did both, but had even more resistance about being a new mom when I defended my dissertation — this time by the women on my committee. Even though they teach, higher ed is NOT mom-friendly. And this was in 2006!
I had another discriminatory incident when I gave birth to my second child. I was adjunct teaching at the university level and had my course load cut in half when my second child was born. I was told the cut would only last a semester, to accommodate my schedule, but the program director never reassigned the courses next semester. So my salary was permanently cut in half. I knew something like that would happen, and came back to work 3 weeks after giving birth to try to protect my job. Obviously, that didn’t work.
This is the reality for women in America’s higher education system. You’re forced to choose, and live with the consequences. I just don’t understand why Warren’s comment is even a question. It happens every day.
Sara B., Columbia, South Carolina
With a baby in the NICU, I lost my job
I went into the hospital with pregnancy complications at 29 weeks and was [put on] 24-hour bed rest. I delivered my daughter 6 weeks early at 34 weeks. I notified my employer of her birth per being told to a few days later. I was then informed that I only had 2 weeks of leave left and would need to return to work after or be terminated. They ran my short-term disability and FMLA concurrently without telling me so I used up 6 out of the 8 weeks while on bed rest. I asked if I could work from home because I physically couldn’t come back in two weeks (C-section delivery). It was up to my supervisor to approve and he denied stating he didn’t believe I would truly work. With a new baby in the NICU and fresh from surgery, I was terminated from my job.
Kesa H., Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
I never forgot the fear I had from my first pregnancy
I am Elizabeth Warren’s vintage. Interviewing for my first professional job In 1978, I was pregnant but did not disclose it. Part of the hiring process was passing a physical. I actually prayed it would not disclose the pregnancy, knowing I would not get hired. After many months of working to make myself indispensable (and still hiding my pregnancy), I told my manager I would need a maternity leave. Annoyed, he said if he’d known I was pregnant he would not have hired me. Nevertheless, he did not fire me and I returned to work after a six-week leave. Four years later, I again became pregnant. My manager was then a VP and I was then a director. By that time, it was assumed I would take a leave and return to work, which I did. But I never forgot the fear I had from my first pregnancy.
Barbara W., Appleton, Wisconsin
“You better not be pregnant”
I was working at a law firm in 2014 and was called into my boss’ office and he inappropriately told me that another attorney had just told him she was pregnant, so his direct quote to me was, “She is pregnant so you better not be.” He then went on to tell me that only one of us could be pregnant on the team at once and that we all better coordinate that. The truth was I had just found out the day before that I was pregnant and was then completely terrified. I unfortunately suffered a miscarriage with that pregnancy, but knew that I would never be able to have a healthy pregnancy at that office. I had seen them fire a pregnant woman and also fire a woman who came back to work post pregnancy who was then hospitalized for severe postpartum depression. She was fired while still out on leave for her postpartum. I had also been told that my career would be ruined if I got pregnant. Rather than continue my career as a law firm attorney and continue in that environment, I chose to take a corporate job where I remain today, happily the mom of 2.
Christina D., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
I’ve been one of the “lucky” ones
I went for an interview at 10 weeks pregnant. I had 2 previous consistent miscarriages, so I didn’t feel comfortable disclosing I was pregnant. After I reached 16 weeks, out of joy and need for emotional support, I told my supervisor and the owner of the business I was pregnant. A week later, I was fired because “I just wouldn’t be happy there due to personality conflicts.” It took me 4 months, without unemployment benefits (which means all of our bills, rent and car payments fell way behind and my husband was pulling 12- to 14-hour shifts, 7 days a week, as well as being threatened with eviction every month) to find another place to work. By that time, my pregnant belly was already showing, and I had very limited choices since I would obviously need maternity leave within a few months. I’ve been one of the lucky ones who found an office full of new and experienced moms and I was hired and still work there now.
Tiffany A., Maryland
Three of my colleagues stood up for me
In 1998, I was the only female doctor in a medical clinic. When I got pregnant with my first child, the director told me I should find another job because managing a primary care practice after having a baby was not going to be possible. Fortunately for me the clinic nurse manager, a woman, and two of my male colleagues stood up for me. I had to make concessions and be in clinic 5 days a week in order to keep my job though. Twelve years later, I became the clinic director. By then the majority of our physicians were women and motherhood was not only accommodated but celebrated.
Korina De Bruyne, M.D., San Jose, California
I am a better person today because I had kids
I became pregnant with my first daughter in 2015. I was working at a rapidly growing tech company in the Midwest, and I was quickly excelling in my career. The company was mostly male but still had some female representation. The problem was that I was the FIRST female to have a baby (while working there). As soon as I told my boss and HR I was pregnant, fear set in with everyone it seemed. How do we handle this? Where will she be able to pump that’s private and NOT a bathroom (which is legally required)? I also learned that the company had a paternity leave policy but NO maternity leave. I could take unpaid FMLA but no paid leave — I couldn’t even save up vacation time to use after having the baby.
Once the management team was aware, I was told to announce this to the team. After the announcement, crickets. I was on an island now. No one knew what to do with me or how to work with me. The first question was, “Are you leaving?” At first, I said “No!” That answer quickly changed. I ended up quitting that job and staying home with my baby and working as a part-time freelancer for about 3 years. It was wonderful. I will never regret that decision. However, I am now managing a growing agency (based on continuous business growth from freelancing) and I will NEVER put one of my team members in that position. I want flexibility and freedom for moms and dads that I work with. I never want to lose talent and potential because someone chooses to have a child. I know I am a better person today than I was before I had kids. I work harder. I work smarter. And I credit a lot of that to being a mom AND a bad ass businesswoman.
Lindsie N., Wisconsin