Complaints to the EEOC remain historically high, and the economy isn't helping.
By now, most employers know enough about the law and gender discrimination to at least avoid the appearance of bias against women, researcher Cynthia Calvert says.
But, she notes, the same cautionary discretion just doesn't seem to apply to mothers, or pregnant mothers-to-be. And employers don't seem to be too shy about expressing their feelings that mothers won't be able to handle their work responsibilities.
"Maternal discrimination is the front line of gender discrimination today," said Calvert, who, as senior adviser at the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, has testified on the topic before Congress.
Pregnancy-discrimination complaints to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have risen steadily from 3,977 in 1997 to a peak of 6,285 in 2008. In 2010, there were 6,119 such complaints.
"Nearly 30 years after the pregnancy-discrimination act was passed, we would have expected it to be a nonissue," said EEOC spokeswoman Christine Nazar.
Cherie Santai, 40, of Perkasie, Pa., considers herself firm evidence that pregnancy discrimination remains a major issue in the workplace. She started out in 1994 as a part-time cashier at Fred Beans Ford Inc.'s Cadillac dealership in Doylestown, Pa. By December 2001, she had risen through the ranks to become service manager at Fred Beans Mitsubishi and, later, at Fred Beans Hyundai.
In October 2008, pregnant with her third child, Santai was terminated.
When she told Fred Beans she was pregnant, "he got very upset," Santai said, describing the reaction of her boss, owner of a string of regional dealerships. "He didn't expect me to have a third child.
"I had always looked up to him. He was always a father figure, a mentor," she said. "Then he was very cold. ... He didn't think I would be able to handle it with three children."
Santai wound up contacting a lawyer, Craig Thor Kimmel of Kimmel & Silverman in Ambler, Pa. In May 2010, she sued Fred Beans and the Beans organization in federal court in Philadelphia. In September, she won a $150,000 judgment from her former employer.
In depositions, Fred Beans said Santai's termination had nothing to do with pregnancy or performance. Her job was eliminated, and she was one among many laid off in 2008. "This is about economics," he said. "This is about ... surviving."
Santai said her job wasn't eliminated; she trained the man who replaced her.
WorkLife Law adviser Calvert said Santai's story has many familiar elements. There's the outright conjecture, she said, over the woman's ability to perform, when employment laws require pregnancy to be treated as any other medical disability.
For example, if a man returning from a heart attack gets an accommodation, a pregnant woman with complications is entitled to the same.
Interestingly, Calvert said, the third pregnancy tends to be a tipping point for employers and discrimination. "When the third child comes along," she said, the pressure "goes into hyperdrive."
It also appears that when male managers "really invest in a woman's career," as Beans did in Santai's rise within his organization, "they feel personally betrayed by a pregnancy."
Calvert said the economy also has had an effect. "When the economy soured, we were hearing anecdotally that people were experiencing more discrimination. Supervisors could use the economy as a way to get rid of people."
Then, as downsized companies reshuffled, the few managers that remained weren't as familiar with the capabilities of their new reports. When it came to layoffs, "they made the assumption that the deadwood was the mothers," Calvert said.
Yet "people were so afraid they were going to lose their jobs that they were afraid to complain," she said.
The EEOC's Nazar says women who are unfairly treated by their employers over a pregnancy must speak up, noting that there are laws to protect them.
"The bottom line," Nazar said, "is that women should never be forced to choose between motherhood and their livelihood."