Earlier this week, Elizabeth Warren detailed her account of losing her teaching job in 1971 as a result of her pregnancy — seven years before the passage of the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act. After some on the right challenged her story, a firestorm was unleashed of women sharing their own experiences of being pushed out, passed up for a promotion, or outright fired because they were pregnant or had a small child. It didn’t just happen in the ‘70s — it’s very much happening now, and many are oblivious to it.
According to Lean In, maternal bias is the strongest type of gender bias. A Stanford University study found that if a woman has "PTA coordinator" on her résumé, she is 79% less likely to be hired, 50% less likely to be promoted, and is offered an average of $11,000 less in salary. And, motherhood alone can trigger assumptions that a woman won't be as competent or committed to her work.
This is why organizations from the Center for American Progress to A Better Balance are fighting for better federal legislation such as the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would "make it clear that employers cannot force pregnant workers off the job or deny them reasonable accommodations that would allow them to continue working while maintaining healthy pregnancies." Congress has reintroduced it each year since 2012, but it still hasn't gone anywhere. There are numerous state and local campaigns as well, and over half of the states have passed protections for pregnant workers.
In a recent tweet, Warren encouraged women to keep sharing their stories of pregnancy discrimination. "We can fight back by telling our stories. I tell mine on the campaign trail, and I hope to hear yours," she wrote.
They have been doing just that all week. Ahead, we spoke with women from different walks of life about the discrimination they experienced after telling their bosses they were pregnant.
Hannah Mamuszka, 42, Lexington, MA, CEO at a diagnostics company
“I work in healthcare diagnostics and pregnancy discrimination is pretty rampant. I have three kids and with each pregnancy I experienced some level of it. With my first, about nine years ago, I was working for a company where I’d been promoted four times in five years. I was 33 and working my butt off.
“When I disclosed my pregnancy to the leadership, one of the execs told me it’s a bit ‘disappointing’ that I wouldn’t be focusing on my career anymore, but he understood because, ‘That’s what girls do.’ When I said I intend to continue working, I was told that’s what women say, but don’t really mean.
“At first, I sort of laughed it off and kept working. But soon, I got a call from my CEO saying they’re ‘downsizing’ and I’d be terminated. Within a week, there was a guy I had worked with who had my title and responsibilities on LinkedIn. They had assigned my job to somebody else, and they fully spelled out their rationale — that they didn’t want to pay for my maternity leave since I probably wouldn’t be coming back to work.
“I sued because I was confident I knew what was going on. When we got into the discovery phase, we found emails between HR and the CEO talking about terminating me based on pregnancy. I ended up settling about two-and-a-half years later.
“During my second pregnancy, I was working for a different company. When I disclosed my pregnancy to my CEO, he told me, half angry, half kidding, that this better be my last kid. I took six weeks maternity leave in order to make it back for a critical meeting. I executed on the most significant deal in our company's history, and presented my win to our board of directors. They could only comment on 'how fast I had managed to get my body back.'
“By the time I was pregnant with my third, I had started my own company, with a female cofounder and a board that is 50% female, so I figured for the first time, I was in the clear. However, an executive for our largest client, upon learning of my pregnancy, told my cofounder that there was 'zero chance our company could survive my pregnancy.' Fortunately, we not only survived, but thrived. The most disappointing thing was that she herself was a working mother. There’s not always as much support from other working mothers as you’d think.”
Serena Geokan, 40, Weymouth, MA, PhD student
“I was fired 11 years ago from a bartending job specifically because I was pregnant. I worked for a now-closed restaurant called Alfredo’s in Quincy, MA. When I told my managers I was pregnant, one of them told me, 'We don’t think this is going to work; you don’t need to come back.' He straight-up told me why.
“I filed a discrimination complaint, and the restaurant alleged that I had been late and didn’t show up for shifts, even though I had a doctor’s note for every absence. I honestly think the guy who fired me didn’t expect me to care at all. I think they were probably shocked that I even pushed back. By the time it went to a hearing, I had given birth to my daughter and she was deaf, so I was very busy with her. I was like, Honestly, what’s the point of following up? I just let it lapse. I wasn’t in the headspace for it.
“It’s honestly not weird for a bartender to get fired for being pregnant. When it comes to female bartenders, they expect you to look a certain way. They want a young, pretty bartender who will keep people at the bar drinking longer. I mean, if you’re a drunk guy trying to escape your family for a little bit... They figure at eight months pregnant, your sex appeal is gone.”
Melanie D’Arrigo, 38, Port Washington, NY, activist running for Congress in NY-3
“A few years ago, before I was pregnant, someone very senior in my company recruited me for a new role. Once I was pregnant and started visibly showing, they gave the new role I was supposed to move into to someone else.
“The woman who had recruited me kept apologizing to me. I said, ‘Why would you recruit me for this role if you weren’t going to give me role?’ She just kept apologizing. During the process, I had turned down two other roles. There was no place for me now. When I asked if this was due to my pregnancy, the leadership feigned ignorance and told me they were offended that I would bring that up.
“Shortly after, I received a compensation package and a non-disclosure agreement. My lawyer suggested it’s better to just take the compensation package because fighting this would be taxing on me while I’m pregnant. There’s also a fear, especially in my small industry, that if you file a lawsuit against a company it’s not going to be very easy for you to get a job in the future. Everyone knows everyone and there’s a lot of chatter.
“Outside of my experience, I’ve had women complain to me about other women going on maternity leave. And I’m like, ‘Well, how would you want to be treated if you have kids?’ As a woman who has had three children, I can tell you maternity leave is no vacation. There is a healing process that needs to take place. A birth is a traumatic experience on a body. It turns your life upside-down.
“I am running for Congress in the 3rd District of New York as a progressive Democrat, and I know there are policy solutions to pregnancy discrimination. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, introduced in 2012, has been reintroduced each year and hasn’t been passed. We also need to elect more women for a more representative, inclusive Congress. What I would like women to know is that we don't have to take it. The way we change it is by lifting each other up and standing together.”
Sarah Cailean, 45, Philadelphia, criminal behaviorist and investigator
“In 2004, I was a police officer in the Columbus, OH, suburbs. I was the second full-time female officer in the department’s history, and I was generally very well-treated. I primarily worked the third shift (overnight, so the most high-risk calls), and had a supportive and respectful team of officers and sergeants. However, the chief at the time was problematic for a lot of reasons.
“I told the chief I was pregnant early on, and said I had no intention of leaving patrol. But about eight weeks in, I started experiencing serious complications and had three so-called ‘threatened miscarriages.’ The doctor said I need to go on ‘light duty,’ which means not directly interacting with suspects. I told the chief and he said, ‘Okay, I’ll think about it.’ I walked out of that meeting surprised; I wasn’t sure that was his decision to make. In the end I was put on light duty, probably because the city overruled him. I assumed this would be the end of it.
“My son was two months early, and I had several weeks with him in the NICU and then just two weeks at home with him. I was on leave for six weeks total, and it’s important to point out that I never exhausted my entire sick-days bank, never mind dip into the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). When I came back from leave, the chief told me I need to ride with an FTO (field training officer) when I’m on patrol, even though I had been with the department for years. There’s no precedent of him doing this with anyone else. It was humiliating. Here I was, being basically babysat by a guy whom I outranked. (Of course, he loved it.) At some point, my sergeant pushed back, so thankfully this didn’t carry on for long.
“Since my son was a premie, he had some health problems, and sometimes I had to take him to appointments, missing shifts. I never went over my sick-days balance. Then one day, the chief wrote me a letter saying I had used ‘too much’ sick time and therefore he was creating my own policy, just for me. It included things like, if I needed to be out for an appointment, I had to get permission from him personally. I felt like I had been kicked in the teeth. Eventually I went to the union, and their attorney looks at me and goes, ‘He’s not very bright, your chief, is he?’ The city eventually told the chief he can’t legally do this.
“Over the next year-and-a-half, the chief engaged in blatant retaliation. He initiated 18 separate investigations into me. (Not one of them actually found anything.) It got to the point where I thought about leaving law enforcement altogether, despite the fact that I loved the department and the guys I worked with. I met with an employment attorney who told me that when there’s a pattern of retaliation, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) can step in.
“I ended up taking a settlement with provisions including my resignation, a completely clean record, and the key point: that, in perpetuity, I can talk to anyone I want in any capacity about what happened to me, and this chief is not even allowed to say my name. He was eventually demoted, although he’s a chief again now. And me? I have way fewer fucks to give than I ever did. I have nothing to lose.”
Sarah Johal, 37, Silicon Valley, brand builder who expanded paid leave at Lyft
“Two weeks before I returned to work from maternity leave, my boss called me at home out of the blue to share I wasn't getting the leadership role we outlined together just before I went on leave. They were giving the promotion to someone more junior and childless on my team, who would now be my new direct boss. I remember getting through the rest of that phone call in this robotic state of shock, mentally questioning what I did wrong, trying not to let my voice break over the phone.
“Before taking maternity leave, I had been with that tech company for nearly seven years, building a 50-person startup to a highly beloved post-IPO [initial public offering] brand… I truly loved my job. Within the few months I was recovering at home, my career growth had been diverted by an executive who perceived working parents as a liability to her 24-hour, on-demand requests. When I returned to the office already devastated by the decision, I brought my newborn daughter to meet everyone. The exec saw us all huddled around, picked up her pace walking by, and loudly said, 'Ew...babies scare me.' I quit her toxic culture six months later.”