Forty years ago today, on October 31, it became illegal to discriminate against pregnant women at work in the United States.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act — one of only two federal laws that protect would-be and expectant moms in the workplace — amended the 1964 Civil Rights Act to “prohibit sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.” The law also states that employers have to treat “women affected by pregnancy … the same for all employment-related purposes … as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”
The act was a response to a 1976 Supreme Court ruling that held that employer discrimination against pregnant women did not constitute sex discrimination. Immediately following that decision, none other than Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then the director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, convened women’s legal groups to meet and talk about the need for a legislative clarification, said Judy Lichtman, a past president of the National Partnership For Women and Families who was involved in those early meetings. “We meant what we said: Pregnancy discrimination is sex discrimination, and therefore a violation of the law.”
Before the law’s passage, employers routinely fired women simply for becoming pregnant. Today, more than 80 percent of first-time moms work well into their pregnancy, and the number of pregnancy discrimination complaints filed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has trended down between 2010 and 2017.
But some things haven’t changed much. A recent series at the New York Times showed that pregnancy discrimination persists in both low-skilled jobs and the highest rungs of corporate America. The results of this can be devastating: Women continue to be laid off before giving birth, are asked to do jobs that imperil their babies and bodies, or face demotions because of their choice to have a child.
This discrimination also shows up in how women are compensated at work. Around the world, women continue to earn less than men — and there’s a growing body of evidence that it’s not their gender that explains why but the fact they carry babies. Researchers have started to refer to this phenomenon as the “childbearing pay gap” or “motherhood penalty,” as Vox’s Sarah Kliff has reported. This disparity shows up even in countries with strong social safety nets, like Denmark. Not even Serena Williams or Beyoncé is immune.
“You have people who, if they were men with heart attacks, would have accommodations that often employers do not make available to women who have health needs to carry a healthy baby to term and to remain healthy themselves,” said Lichtman. That’s especially true for women of color, she added.
There’s one additional, and often neglected, way pregnant women at work continue to be overlooked at work: They’re often invisible.
A new photography commission, Showing: Pregnancy in the Workplace, aims to address “the dearth of real, everyday images of pregnant women at work.” Commissioned by the nonprofit Working Assumptions, the photo exhibition is a gorgeous look at pregnancy in America today — and it should make you pause about how seldom images like these are broadcast. Here are some of our favorite photos of women at work. You can also see the exhibition live at the University Art Gallery at California State University Stanislaus in Turlock.