Punished for Being Pregnant

There's a lot governments and corporations and individual bosses need to do to fix this maternal profiling mess. But it's time women (and come on, men, too) started getting angry, loudly, about it.
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Being pregnant -- from the vomitous first months to the cumbersome final stretch (unpleasant pun intended) -- is onerous enough without having to worry about getting sacked on top of it. In this month's Elle magazine, one writer details the abysmal treatment she received at the hands of her erstwhile feminist boss when she breaks the baby news, and how she is summarily passed over for an obvious promotion after maternity leave.

Unfortunately, even in these supposedly feminized times and in an era in which parenthood has become surprisingly chic, getting pregnant puts you on a swift path to workplace stagnation, disrespect, and in too many cases, flat-bottom-out demotion. A good friend of mine, call her Nadya (lest I sabotage her future employment plans forever), was working part-time last year when she told her boss she was expecting her second child. "Ohhh....," her (female) boss simpered with a pitying smile. "Well, you just don't know what life is going to be like after two kids. You'll probably be overwhelmed." Fast forward eight months, and the full-time spot that Nadya had been actively angling for -- for over a year -- the one that had been all but promised to her, was conveniently filled during the month after Nadya delivered. "How could I have known where you would stand when you returned -- if you returned?" her ostensibly sympathetic boss asked.

All of this falls under the new buzzphrase maternal profiling. The term was first coined (or perhaps popularized) by the very cool organization Moms Rising and has since been debated in the wider media. The New York Times Magazine named maternal profiling one of the Big Ideas of 2007. Over on Leslie Morgan Steiner's On Balance blog at the Washington Post, Morgan Steiner recently detailed some of the most common complaints:

"Pregnant women being fired for trumped-up reasons; interview questions designed to weed out mothers and other caregivers; performance reviews designed to eliminate those employees, whether or not work has actually been affected..."

This kind of mistreatment and discrimination is more objectionable than ever, considering trends in maternity leave. According to a report issued by the Census Bureau last month, two-thirds of women who had their first child between 2001 and 2003 worked during their pregnancy compared with just 44 percent who gave birth for the first time between 1961 and 1965. Women are hoisting their pregnant asses onto subways and commuter highways much more often than they did in the 1960s, and much later into their pregnancies. When my mother's water broke (with me) in her workplace elevator, a purple zebra may as well have spontaneously combusted in the office lobby. But today, women regularly work up to the day their babies are born, often penciling in C-sections to accommodate their sales calendar.

Yet while women overwhelmingly return to the workplace within a year after giving birth (83%) only 7 in 10 manage to retain the same pay, skill level and hours worked per week. Too often, both in high-paced corporate environments and in assembly line jobs, they are sidled over to the mommy track. For the former, desirable part-time jobs are elusive; for the latter, an undesirable cut in hours or a move to a less convenient schedule, is all too frequent.

Obviously, there's a lot that governments and corporations and individual bosses need to do to fix this mess. But I think it's time women (and come on, men too) started getting angry, loudly, about it. Too often, new mothers, vulnerable and sleep-deprived, inadvertently bend over backwards to acclimate to their workplace, grateful to have a job at all, let alone a bathroom stall to pump milk in. It's time we start to demand more (and for heaven's sake, not less).

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