At Tuesday’s Democratic Debate in South Carolina, Sen. Elizabeth Warren brought up the topic of pregnancy discrimination in the workforce, including an anecdote of her personal experience with it. While calling out former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s alleged sexist comments to a former employee encouraging her to have an abortion or risk losing her job, Warren shared with the debate crowd her own story.
“You know this is personal for me,” the senator said. “When I was 21 years old, I got my first job as a special education teacher. I loved that job. And by the end of the first year, I was visibly pregnant. The principal wished me luck and gave my job to someone else.” Warren went on to explain how, at age 21, she was not protected by a union or any federal laws to prevent pregnancy discrimination. “So I packed up my stuff, and I went home. At least I didn’t have a boss who said to me, ‘Kill it,’ the way that Mayor Bloomberg is alleged to have said to one of his pregnant employees.”
Warren and Bloomberg went on to spar further on the realities of pregnancy discrimination, with Bloomberg asserting that Warren’s own experience would not have happened in New York while he was mayor. Warren pushed back by asking why, then, Bloomberg continues to have so many of his former women employees with raised issues of sex-based discrimination bound by non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).
The impassioned applause that Warren got in response came from an obvious familiarity for too many women — and one that has a significant impact on the American economy. Despite mothers being the primary or co-breadwinners in 40% of American families, discrimination against pregnant women and mothers in the workplace is still prevalent. From 2006 to 2016 alone, lawsuits involving women who need accommodations at work while pregnant increased by 315%. And, the hits women endure as a result of choosing to become working parents don’t end there. Women are also reported to lose 4% of their hourly wages for every child they have, too.
Beyond that, low-wage workers and women of colour are disproportionately impacted by pregnancy discrimination. Between the 2011 and 2015 alone, black or African-American women filed 28.6 percent of all pregnancy discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), despite making up just 14.3 percent of the women labor force. Given that women of colour hold the majority of low-wage jobs, they are often doubly penalised economically when it comes to trying to engage in the labor market and support their families while also growing those families.
This type of inherent and system discrimination that Warren called out in the debate is very much still happening in the US, despite the fact that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was enacted in 1978. As the election cycle drudges on with two women leading conversations about gender equality, addressing the reality of pregnancy discrimination and what it means for women’s economic stability and mobility is a critical issue for every 2020 candidate.