Over its three seasons, the ABC sitcom “Black-ish” has been rightly celebrated for its nuanced takes on everything from police brutality to homophobia.
In a recent episode, the show took on another type of discrimination: the stereotypes and unfair workplace treatment of pregnant women and their partners.
In a brisk 22 minutes, the episode neatly showcased the underpinnings of pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. As a lawyer who works on these issues, I was impressed.
The drama starts when Bow, a successful anesthesiologist, learns that she is being considered for a partnership in a medical group at the hospital where she works even as she has learned that she’s pregnant with her fifth child.
It turns out that Bow is competing against another employee who is every pregnant worker’s worst nightmare: “Holiday Hannah,” a single woman with no children and seemingly no other responsibilities who always volunteers to work shifts no one else can.
Bow sets out to convince the interview committee that the pregnancy won’t interfere with her work by making five assurances:
- Being pregnant is an asset
- It means I’m completely loyal
- The baby is not going to interfere with my schedule at all
- I’ll be back in six weeks
- Pregnant women can do it all
Meanwhile, Bow’s husband, Dre, faces his own problems as he considers taking paternity leave. In a textbook example of what not to do, his colleagues laugh at the idea, while his supervisor—who literally needs a Human Resources representative to sit by him to ensure he acts appropriately—ticks off damaging stereotypes.
“This whole paternity thing it’s not real,” Dre’s boss argues. “There is nothing a man can do to help a woman with a baby. He can’t nurse. He can’t go to doctor’s appointments. What’s a man going to do with a baby?”
When Dre says he is considering taking paternity leave, his employer punishes him by reassigning his work responsibilities and suggests that anticipating his leave caused the company to realize it might not need him after all.
While the situations on “black-ish” are played for laughs, this episode draws attention to some very serious and very real problems in America’s workplaces. Despite seemingly robust laws barring pregnancy discrimination and requiring family leave, too many American workers face professional repercussions when they have a child.
Laws such as Title VII are clear that employees cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their sex, specifically noting that this includes discrimination on the basis of pregnancy. In theory, Title VII should operate to protect male and female employees from gender stereotyping. This means that women and men who are parents should not suffer adverse employment actions, including the failure to hire or promote, because employers view them as less capable of doing their jobs because of their status of parents.
In addition, laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act should protect parents by allowing them to take time off after the birth of a child without the threat of losing their job or suffering other detrimental actions.
In practice, too many workers find that they still face discrimination. Few employers set out to consciously discriminate, but, like Dre’s boss, they suffer from stereotypes and biases about the abilities of pregnant women and/or parents to be good employees that are so ingrained in culture that they are difficult to combat.
In a sign of just how hard these attitudes can be to fight, “black-ish” turns the tables toward the end of the episode when Bow and Dre learn that their nanny is pregnant. Stressed and upset, Bow decides that they should fire the nanny, arguing she has violated “the sacred trust” between employer and employee, even while the nanny uses many of Bow’s own arguments to try to reassure her that she will still be a good worker.
Bow ultimately does not get the promotion and wonders whether her pregnancy is the reason, while Dre decides not to take paternity leave—a real-life outcome for far too many Americans.
Phillis h. Rambsy is a partner with the Spiggle Law Firm in Nashville, Tenn. Her legal practice focuses on workplace law where she represents employees in matters of wrongful termination and employment discrimination including racial discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, and other family-care issues such as caring for a sick child or an elderly parent. To learn more, visit www.spigglelaw.com.