7 Things You Need to Know about Pregnancy Discrimination

Close-up of a pregnant woman seated at a desk.

Image by Thinkstock

October 31, 2013

Dealing with being a pregnant worker can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be. Fortunately, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act protects the rights of the millions of working women in the United States who will become pregnant at some point in their lives, but many still struggle to have their rights respected.

The first step is to know what your rights are and aren’t. So here are seven things you should know about pregnancy discrimination:

  1. The PDA prohibits discrimination in all aspects of employment, including hiring, firing, promotion, pay, and other employment benefits. It prohibits policies that limit or prevent women from doing jobs simply because they are fertile or pregnant but also forbids policies that disparately impact women because they are pregnant or able to become pregnant.
  2. The PDA only covers workplaces with 15 or more employees. If you work for an organization with fewer than 15 employees, check with your regional Department of Labor Women’s Bureau office to see if your state has an agency that can assist you.
  3. You cannot be fired for filing a complaint against your employer if you believe she or he has violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
  4. You can’t be bypassed for a promotion because you’re pregnant.
  5. If you take pregnancy or maternity leave, your employer must hold open your job the same amount of time a position would be left open for an employee who is on leave because of sickness or disability.
  6. You don’t have to tell potential or current employers that you’re pregnant. An employer cannot refuse to hire you because of your pregnancy as long as you are able to perform the functions of the job and also cannot ask you if you are pregnant or plan to have children.
  7. You can be treated differently based on where you work if you’re pregnant and unmarried. Some courts have held that religious organizations or ones working with youth may discriminate against employees who violate the organizations’ principles condemning premarital sex. However, these employers would need to demonstrate that they do not treat men who are engaged in premarital sex differently than women who are. But at most organizations, pregnancy-related benefits cannot be limited to married employees.

So what should you do if you believe your employer has discriminated against you because of your pregnancy or pregnancy-related condition? You have the right to file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces many anti-discrimination laws, including the PDA.

Don’t wait if you want to file a charge: In most cases, you must file within 180 days of the discriminatory action to preserve your legal rights. You can file a charge even if you do not work for your employer anymore, and you do not need to hire a lawyer. Go to the EEOC’s website for instructions.

Whether or not you have decided to complain to the EEOC, consider taking these steps:

  1. Write down what happened — the date, time, and place of the incident — as soon as possible. Include what was said and who was there. Keep a copy of these notes at home. They will be useful if you decide to file a complaint with your company or take legal action.
  2. Talk to your union representative if you have one. Union rules often allow you to file a grievance. If you don’t have a union, call a women’s or civil rights group for help.
  3. Talk to your employer. Check your employee handbook for procedures.
  4. Keep doing a good job, and keep a record of your work. Keep copies at home of your job evaluations and any letters or memos that show that you’re doing your job well. Your boss may criticize your performance later on in order to defend his or her discrimination.
  5. Seek support from friends and family. Discrimination at work is a difficult thing to face alone, and the process of fighting back can be very stressful.

If you are interested in speaking with an attorney, your local bar association can offer you a referral. You can also e-mail laf@aauw.org; AAUW’s Legal Advocacy Fund can help direct you to a referral source.

By:   |   October 31, 2013


  1. […] time off and an expensive health care package. Some discrimination against unmarried pregnant women is legal, because of religious freedom acts. Being pregnant, regardless of whether a woman chooses to […]

  2. Julie Davies says:

    As someone who did file a pregnancy discrimination suit against my multi-million-dollar-bully of an employer (and as someone who “won”—as much justice as I could afford, especially considering what was available at the time), I agree with this article. The steps makes sense. However, I will warn that the EEOC is a watchdog without “teeth” to enforce the law and the agency lacks even the ability/desire to “bark” at offenders. They do not litigate on behalf of all cause findings that fail conciliation—and if an employer is big enough, the EEOC won’t even try to conciliate. Most companies know this and don’t respect the cause finding.
    If you do decide to complain about pregnancy discrimination, make sure you have documentation, witnesses and that you are fulfilling your job requirements (all of which I did and I had—and it was still very difficult). And be prepared to be blackballed/purged from your industry while you, alone, may have to litigate on your own behalf. When you win, you may only receive what you should have received in the first place (less some of the expenses not compensated) and then you will have to rebuild or reinvent your career. Don’t expect full justice. I certainly didn’t receive it even though I “won” my case. Still, I know that policies were changed and working conditions improved for others as a result of my lawsuit—and I was able to continue with a strong career (and as a stronger—although singed—person as a result).
    Women’s organizations helped me tremendously (in finding a law firm willing to take my case, with support and encouragement, and many organizations, including many branches of AAUW, even boycotted the business, which made a more powerful impact than we ever expected).
    I filed back in the 1980’s when there were still “when you show, you go” HR policies in place and I was told by male and female elected officials that women needed to be considerate enough to quit their jobs when they were pregnant, and if we all did, we wouldn’t need to update state laws to meet federal code (the Pregnancy Discrimination Act). But we worked hard and laws were changed, penalties increased, and protections strengthened for all women including pregnant working women. But discrimination still exists and it is still wrong. Workplace conditions have improved considerably, however.
    Now, I am also someone who has been the employer of women who felt that they should not have to work as effectively (or even have to work for their pay, for that matter) due to their pregnancy and who didn’t think they should have to come back to work after an extended and extremely generous leave in which we kept their job open for them (at great stress to the business and other employees). Pregnancy is not an excuse to not be a good employee and to not complete fair work for the pay we are receiving. It is fair to expect “reasonable accommodation” for the condition and for the leave, but we shouldn’t use pregnancy as an excuse not to earn our pay. We damage the progress we have made when we abuse the protections and accommodations we receive. And we should never forget that we have rights and sometimes we need to stand up and defend them (perhaps as the complainant, but more often as the co-worker, friend, or caring stranger who stands beside the complainant in their battle). I thank all who stood by me—they made a difference for me and for the issue.

  3. Patty Tanji says:

    Unfortunately you may never know the reason you did not get hired, a promotion, or a pay raise was because you are pregnant or have an infant or other family responsibilities. The best you can do is be aware that this might be a possibility..and move forward. Muster all your strengths, get a coach (shameless self-promotion) and create a plan to right a wrong, find another employer, focus on your strengths.
    My heart goes out to all pregnant women in the workforce. I was one, it was ugly, I forgave and moved on. You can too.
    I do not recommend suing your boss for a myriad of reasons, one being the stress, strain, and demoralization that occurs when are forced to defend your good actions. Your boss’ will claim your bad work ethic, your bad attitude, etc was the reason you did not get the job, promotion, or pay raise. If you know you are in the right…there is no need to defend your actions.
    Patty Tanji

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