It's the early 1970s. The women's movement has made great strides. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," featuring independent, career woman Mary Richards, is climbing the ratings charts. Women are entering the workforce in record numbers. And yet, women face significant barriers to success and equality in the workplace, including being fired simply because they are or might become pregnant.
Fast forward some four decades to 2013. How much have things changed for pregnant women in the workplace? The short answer: not enough.
The good news is that discrimination based on pregnancy is illegal. Thanks to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 and the broad-based coalition that pushed for its passage, led by the National Partnership for Women & Families and others, enforcement agencies and women themselves have a powerful tool for combating pregnancy discrimination. The law was a tremendous step forward for women's equality.
The disappointing news is that pregnancy discrimination persists, despite the fact that women make up nearly half the workforce and are essential breadwinners for their families. From 1992 to 2011, charges of pregnancy discrimination filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission actually increased by 71 percent. It's amazing that this kind of discrimination is so common today because three-quarters of women will become pregnant at least once while employed.
Some of the pregnancy discrimination that occurs today is more subtle than what happened to women of Mary Richards' generation. Today, pregnant women tend to be forced out of their jobs or fired because their employers refuse to make minor accommodations that would enable them to continue working – such as letting them carry a water bottle, take bathroom breaks or sit down as they do their jobs. This discrimination is shameful and does real harm to women and their families at a time when they badly need wages.
The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, now before Congress, would help to combat this form of discrimination. It would strengthen the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and help fulfill its promise by putting in place the same protections for pregnant women as those afforded to workers with similar limitations, preventing employers from forcing pregnant workers out of their jobs and helping ensure employers provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant women who want to continue working. It is a much-needed bill – and now is the perfect time for lawmakers, women and their families to call for its speedy passage.
That's because, this week, we celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the last week of National Work and Family Month – a time to reflect on progress toward enabling women and men to manage job and family. Both are stark reminders of how long women and families across the country have been waiting for fair, family friendly and women-friendly workplaces.
From advancing measures that would promote fair pay to establishing family-friendly workplace standards to passing the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, Congress can and should be doing much more to update the nation's workplace policies and ensure greater protections and support for pregnant workers and for all families. It is time – past time – for things to change.