Legions of American women who’ve spent two, three or four decades in the workforce likely identified with the sentiment that a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission spokeswoman shared recently with a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter.
"Nearly 30 years after the pregnancy-discrimination act was passed, we would have expected it to be a nonissue," EEOC spokeswoman Christine Nazar said of workplace discrimination against pregnant employees.
Instead, complaints about pregnancy-related unfairness rose during the decade before the start of the Great Recession and have remained high since then.
Expectations ran high indeed 30-plus years ago, when the modern-day women’s movement was young and women were surging into the paid workforce. Feminists told each other that they would change not only their own lives, but employment itself.
Employers would recognize that combining the demands of work and family was a necessity, optimistic visionaries believed. Flex-time and flex-location work would be commonplace.
Big employers and many smaller ones would offer on-site child care, and help pay for it. Generous leaves of absence would be available for new parents and for the care of sick children and aging family members. Career trajectories would not be altered by pregnancy and childbirth.
For a few lucky American women with enlightened employers, those dreams came true. But as Gail Collins noted in her 2009 book, “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present,” most American women today work in environments not much more “family friendly” than those of the 1980s.
The dreamers “had not considered the possibility that society might remain pretty much the same as always, and simply open the door for women to join the race for success while taking care of their private lives as best they could,” Collins wrote.
Some would say that the as-yet unfulfilled goal of workplace accommodation to family needs is proof that the women’s movement of the 1970s and 1980s failed.
I’d say the movement has an unfinished agenda to hand to the dreamers’ daughters.
* * *