The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 makes it illegal for a woman to be fired just because she is pregnant. But that doesn't stop it from happening, according to new research by Reginald Byron, assistant professor of sociology at Southwestern University and Vincent Roscigno, professor of sociology at The Ohio State University.
What employers do to get around the law, Byron said, is vilify pregnant women as poor performers and tardy employees while also pointing to seemingly fair attendance policies and financial costs.
Although such concerns may, at face value, seem legitimate in a business sense, Byron and Roscigno note that the same policies and rationales are often not invoked in the case of non-pregnant employees, including those with worse records of performance and attendance.
"This strategy of portraying pregnant workers as undependable and costly seems to legitimize their terminations to external audiences," Byron said. "Such a strategy adds to existing employer-employee power disparities like employers' ability to hire a lawyer in discrimination suits."
The study was published online Feb. 20 in the journal Gender and Society and will appear in the June 2014 print edition.
Byron and Roscigno analyzed 70 verified cases of pregnancy-based firing discrimination that were handled by the Ohio Civil Rights Commission between 1986 and 2003 plus an additional 15 cases that were processed between 2007 and 2011. Their key findings included the following:
• Pregnancy accounted for 40 percent of all gender-related firing cases.
• Poor performance was the reason employers cited most frequently for terminating pregnant workers; about 30 percent gave this as the reason.
• Fifteen percent of employers claimed pregnant women were fired because of poor attendance and/or tardiness.
• About 10 percent of employers invoked "business needs, profit and efficiency" in reference to pregnancy discrimination cases.
One example Byron and Roscigno cite in their paper was the case of a woman who was fired from her job as an assistant restaurant manager after she became pregnant. Her supervisor claimed that the company was restructuring and needed to reduce its number of assistant managers from three to two. But after she was fired for "business reasons," the company hired a man to fill the exact same position that was supposedly no longer needed.
"Some employers think pregnant women will be distracted both in the present and in the future," Byron said.
Byron said many pregnancy-related firings stem from stereotypes of what "ideal" workers should look like. Also, he said existing laws are full of gender-laden economic loopholes. For example, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which provides a maximum of 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave during any 12-month period, does not apply to private sector employers with less than 50 people nor does it grant leave to employees with less than one year of tenure.
Some states have their own laws that are broader than the federal law. In Ohio, for example, companies with four or more employees are subject to state anti-discrimination law. But even with state laws in place, Byron said some companies are reluctant to change the way they are run. "Organizational culture can be very difficult to change," he said.
Byron said pregnancy discrimination only compounds other gender-based employment inequalities women face in the workplace in areas such as hiring, wages and harassment. He plans to spend his sabbatical next fall studying recent discrimination cases in four other states. He said he is particularly interested to see if the recent economic recession affected how employers and employees talk about firing discrimination.
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