Pregnancy discrimination widespread at America's top companies

The New York Times recently published an expose about how common pregnancy discrimination continues to be in the U.S.

After reviewing thousands of pages of public records and court documents and interviewing dozens of women, their lawyers, and public officials, the Times concluded that pregnancy discrimination is "rampant." This is true even at companies that advertise themselves as especially friendly to working mothers.

For example, 21st Century Fox, AT&T, KPMG, Merck, Walmart and Whole Foods have all been the targets of legal action alleging pregnancy discrimination. Each of the companies' websites boasts about celebrating and empowering women.

The Times found pregnancy discrimination in both blue-collar and white-collar jobs. In the cases highlighted in the expose, the discrimination was blatant.

"You're old and having babies so there's nowhere for you to go," said one supervisor at a major commodity trading company when a pregnant worker asked about her future career moves. He had already told her that getting pregnant would "definitely plateau" her career.

Misconceptions about pregnancy

Interestingly, the article gives several specific examples of how misconceptions about pregnancy contributed to discrimination. For instance, a supervisor at Walmart claimed to have seen Demi Moore perform a flip on TV while nearly full term and so pregnancy was "no excuse" for avoiding heavy lifting. (The flip was done by a stunt double.) At another company, male co-workers quipped about how pregnancy changes women's brains and began treating a pregnant worker as if she had changed overnight and held no further potential.

Just as often, however, pregnant women are simply denied reasonable accommodations, sidelined and underestimated -- and fired when they complain.

Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and Fair Employment and Housing Act, it's illegal to base job decisions on the prejudices of co-workers, clients or customers. Any discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth or related conditions is considered impermissible gender discrimination. It's also illegal to retaliate in any way after a woman complains about pregnancy discrimination or files or participates in a lawsuit for discrimination.

The cost of each child

According to Michelle J. Budig, a sociologist from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, women lose 4 percent in hourly wages for every child they have. Men, on the other hand, gain 6 percent in pay per child. Her analysis controlled for differences in marital status, hours worked, experience and education.

"Some women hit the maternal wall long before the glass ceiling," says Joan C. Williams, a professor at University of California Hastings College of Law. "There are 20 years of lab studies that show the bias exists and that, once triggered, it's very strong."

EEOC complaints about pregnancy discrimination have been rising for decades and are now at nearly an all-time high. Have you run into the "maternal wall"?