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Pregnancy discrimination rampant inside America’s biggest companies, investigation reveals

U.S. companies have spent years trying to become more welcoming to women. They have rolled out generous parental leave policies, designed cushy lactation rooms and plowed millions of dollars into programs aimed at retaining mothers.

But these advances haven’t changed a simple fact: Whether women work at Walmart or on Wall Street, getting pregnant is often the moment they are knocked off the professional ladder.

Throughout the U.S. workplace, pregnancy discrimination remains widespread. It can start as soon as a woman is showing, and it often lasts through her early years as a mother.

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The New York Times reviewed thousands of pages of court and public records and interviewed dozens of women, their lawyers and government officials. A clear pattern emerged. Many of the country’s largest and most prestigious companies still systematically sideline pregnant women. They pass them over for promotions and raises. They fire them when they complain.

In physically demanding jobs, the discrimination can be blatant. Pregnant women risk losing their jobs when they ask to carry water bottles or take rest breaks.

In corporate office towers, the discrimination tends to be more subtle. Pregnant women and mothers are often perceived as less committed, steered away from prestigious assignments, excluded from client meetings and slighted at bonus season.

Each child chops 4 per cent off a woman’s hourly wages, according to a 2014 analysis by a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Men’s earnings increase by 6 per cent when they become fathers, after controlling for experience, education, marital status and hours worked.

“Some women hit the maternal wall long before the glass ceiling,” said Joan C. Williams, a professor at University of California Hastings College of Law who has testified about pregnancy discrimination at regulatory hearings. “There are 20 years of lab studies that show the bias exists and that, once triggered, it’s very strong.”

Of course, plenty of women decide to step back from their careers after becoming mothers. But for those who want to keep working at the same level, getting pregnant and having a child often deals them an involuntary setback.

The number of pregnancy discrimination claims filed annually with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been steadily rising for two decades.

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It’s not just the private sector. In September, a federal appeals court ruled in favour of Stephanie Hicks, who sued the Tuscaloosa, Ala., police department for pregnancy discrimination. Ms. Hicks was lactating, and her doctor told her that her bulletproof vest was too tight and risked causing a breast infection. Her superior’s solution was a vest so baggy that it left portions of her torso exposed.

Tens of thousands of women have taken legal action alleging pregnancy discrimination at companies including Walmart, Merck, AT&T, Whole Foods, 21st Century Fox, KPMG, Novartis and the law firm Morrison & Foerster. All of those companies boast on their websites about celebrating and empowering women.

As a senior woman at Glencore, the world’s largest commodity trading company, Erin Murphy is a rarity. She earns a six-figure salary plus a bonus co-ordinating the movement of the oil that Glencore buys and sells. Most of the traders whom she works with are men.

The few women at the company have endured a steady stream of sexist comments, according to Ms. Murphy. Her account of Glencore’s culture was verified by two employees, one of whom recently left the company. They requested anonymity because they feared retaliation.

In 2013, a year after she arrived, Ms. Murphy’s boss, Guy Freshwater, described Ms. Murphy in a performance review as “one of the hardest working” colleagues. In a performance review the next year, he called her a “strong leader” who is “diligent, conscientious and determined.”

But when Ms. Murphy told Freshwater she was pregnant with her first child, he told her it would “definitely plateau” her career, she said in the affidavit. In 2016, she got pregnant with her second child. One afternoon, Mr. Freshwater announced to the trading floor that the most-read article on the BBC’s website was about pregnancy altering women’s brains. Ms. Murphy, clearly showing, was the only pregnant woman there.

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“It was like they assumed my brain had totally changed overnight,” Ms. Murphy, 41, said in an interview. “I was seen as having no more potential.”

When she was eight months pregnant, she discussed potential future career moves with Mr. Freshwater. According to her, Mr. Freshwater responded: “You’re old and having babies so there’s nowhere for you to go.”

A Glencore spokesman declined to comment on Mr. Freshwater’s behalf.

After she came back from four months of maternity leave, she organized her life so that having children wouldn’t interfere with her career. She arranged for child care starting at 7 a.m. so she would never be late.

But as her co-workers were promoted, her bosses passed her over and her bonuses barely rose, Ms. Murphy said.

Ms. Murphy has retained a lawyer and is planning to file a lawsuit against Glencore.

Glencore’s spokesman, Charles Watenphul, defended the company’s practices. “Glencore Ltd. is committed to supporting women going on and returning from maternity leave,” he said. He said Ms. Murphy was never passed over for promotions or treated differently because of her pregnancies. He said that she received bonuses and pay increases every year. Her lawyer, Mark Carey, said that Ms. Murphy was only given cost-of-living increases and was denied opportunities to advance.

Ms. Murphy still works at Glencore. In January, she filed a complaint of pregnancy discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Last year, the EEOC received 3,184 pregnancy discrimination complaints, about twice as many as in 1992, when the agency began keeping electronic records.

The drug company Novartis in 2010 agreed to pay US$175-million to settle a class-action lawsuit in which thousands of current and former sales representatives said the company discriminated against women, including expecting mothers, in pay and promotions.

One former Novartis saleswoman, Christine Macarelli, said that her boss told her that “women who find themselves in my position — single, unmarried — should consider an abortion.” When she returned from maternity leave, she said she was told to stop trying to get a promotion “because of my unfortunate circumstances at home — being my son Anthony.”

In 1978, Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which made it illegal to treat pregnant women differently from other people “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

That didn’t resolve the issue. Employers argued in court that pregnant women were most “similar” to workers injured off the job and, therefore, didn’t deserve accommodations.

Then, Peggy Young sued UPS for discrimination. She had been an early-morning driver when she got pregnant in 2006. Her doctor instructed her not to lift heavy boxes. UPS told her it couldn’t give her a light-duty job. She ended up on unpaid leave without health insurance.

At the time, UPS gave reprieves from heavy lifting to drivers injured on the job and those who were permanently disabled.

Two federal courts ruled in UPS’ favour. Young appealed to the Supreme Court. During oral arguments in 2014, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg challenged UPS’ lawyer to cite “a single instance of anyone who needed a lifting dispensation who didn’t get it except for pregnant people.” The UPS lawyer drew a blank.

In 2015, the court ruled 6-3 in Ms. Young’s favour. But the justices stopped short of establishing an outright protection for expectant mothers. They just said that if employers are accommodating big groups of other workers — people with disabilities, for example — but not pregnant women, they are probably violating the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

In 2017, under pressure from a class-action lawsuit and EEOC complaints, Walmart updated its guidelines on how to accommodate pregnant women. The nationwide policy now includes a temporary, less-taxing job as a “possible” solution. It doesn’t provide a guarantee.

New York Times News Service

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