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Review finds pregnancy discrimination rampant in US companies

The New York Times recently performed a review involving thousands of pages of public and court records and interviews with dozens of women and their attorneys. According to the Times, the review showed a clear pattern: Many large, prestigious U.S. companies are still systematically discriminating against pregnant women and firing them when they complain.

In fact, according to a 2014 analysis by a University of Massachusetts Amherst sociologist, a woman's wages drop by 4 percent each time she has a child. In contrast, men's wages grow by 6 percent upon fatherhood. The analysis controlled for marital status, experience, education and number of hours worked.

In November, researchers at the Census Bureau published a paper about the pay differential between spouses. In the two years before a first child, the men made just slightly more than the women. By that child's first birthday, the men averaged $25,000 more. Moreover, women dropping out, taking maternity leave and working fewer hours provided only a partial explanation. The rest was likely caused by pregnancy discrimination.

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

The bias may be obvious or subtle. In one of the cases cited by the Times, a woman was told directly that pregnancy would "plateau" her career. Another was told pregnancy was "no excuse" for limiting heavy lifting that could injure a pregnant woman. Some managers simply act on the assumption that women who get pregnant are less committed or dependable.

The discrimination comes in many forms, too. It often results in a lack of advancement, early termination or overt comments and jokes about pregnant women's hormones. It may involve refusing to allow rest breaks or proper accommodation for lactation. Often, complaints are met with retaliation.

According to the article, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 3,184 pregnancy discrimination complaints last year. That's around twice as many as it received in 1992 when the agency began keeping electronic records.

The Times review found complaints of clear pregnancy discrimination even at companies that advertise themselves as great places for working mothers to work.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed in 1978. It prohibits treating pregnant women differently from others with similar abilities and challenges at work. Nevertheless, strong biases against pregnant women are not just limiting some opportunities but derailing careers. It's long past time for change.

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