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You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby. Or Have You?

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Illustration by Dav BordeleauThe interviewer smooths a crisp new pad of paper and clicks a pen printed with my prospective employer’s corporate logo. Thoughts start to race through my head.

Am I showing through my black maternity blazer? Maybe he’ll think I’m just not skinny. They wouldn’t dare ask, right?

Keep smiling. Look engaged. Stop tapping your foot.

Oh no. He just asked if I had family. It’s really just me and my husband right now. Is saying that a lie? Wait, is he allowed to ask that?

What if I get an offer? Should I take it before my belly becomes obvious? No one will hire me then, right?  

The percentage of working moms has soared from 63 percent of 25- to 34-year-old women in 1975 to 81 percent in 1999, with 82 percent of women having children by the time they are 44.

So why did I think that interviewing while pregnant was taboo? The more I asked other mothers, the more I learned they felt the same way.

And why wouldn’t they? A Cornell University study finds mothers are 44 percent less likely to be hired than non-mothers who have the same résumé, experience and qualifications. Mothers are offered significantly lower starting pay for the same job as equally qualified non-mothers. (Study participants offered non-mothers an average of $11,000 more than mothers.) And a college graduate who becomes a mom can expect to forfeit nearly $1 million dollars during her working life.

The employer’s fear is that the mother, usually the lead caretaker of the household, will be distracted by family responsibilities, making her a less valuable worker—regardless of the reality.

Delaware law is consistent with federal laws that protect women from discrimination in the workplace, yet the state has no law that specifically protects pregnant women.

“The rate of discrimination against working mothers has gone up so much, it’s become a new area of specialization in the legal profession,” says Marie Laberge, president of the Delaware Chapter of the National Organization of Women. “The reality is there is a large number of women in the workforce. It is incumbent upon us to find ways to make it possible for them to be with their families—both men and women. We are responsible for this, as we are raising the next generation. Parents should not be punished for it.”

Pregnancy discrimination complaints have risen over the past decade. In 2005 the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 4,449 complaints, which employers paid more than $11 million to settle.

Adria Martinelli is a senior associate in the Employment Department at the law firm of Young Conaway Stargatt and Taylor in Wilmington. She represents employers in discrimination cases and speaks frequently on family responsibility and pregnancy discrimination. She’s also a working mom.

“When there’s a good economy, there is more focus on retaining employees versus cutting costs,” Martinelli says. “As the economy turns south, we’re likely to see more cases, as there are often costs associated with accommodating a woman with children.”

The number of single moms in America rose from 3 million in 1970 to 10 million in 2003. Imagine the challenges they face. As sole caregivers, they need flexible work schedules, quality benefits and reasonable childcare costs. Part-time work would be ideal for many, since full-time childcare consumes most of a paycheck, but most jobs do not offer benefits for part-time positions. A quarter of new poverty spells start when a baby is born.

Brenda Goebel Denesowicz of Hockessin was single and pregnant at 23. “I chose to have a day care in my home, as I felt I did not have a chance in hell of finding a job while six months pregnant,” Denesowicz says. “I also wanted to raise my daughter without putting her in a ‘center,’ as they were called 14 years ago.”

Denesowicz also went to school and tended bar to make ends meet. When she became an aesthetician, different challenges emerged. “Being a single parent is hard in the salon industry,” she says. “We do not normally have paid sick leave, and long hours are the norm.”

During a staff meeting at her Wilmington salon, Denesowicz’s employer recognized her for selling the most products and having the most new clients. But the proud moment turned sour when her employer pointed out that she wasn’t working to capacity—150 percent of the required hours. The boss then cited as exemplary behavior the fact that another employee was able to attend the same meeting despite the fact that her son was in the hospital. Denesowicz offered her $100 award back, saying, “I’d be at the hospital.”
 

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Dedicated to helping families in need who want to better their lives, Denesowicz now serves on the board of trustees for Mom’s House, which provides free, licensed day care services to low-income parents who are full-time students. Denesowicz’s experience can’t help but make one question if we really have come a long way when it comes to working moms.

Let’s start with a little history.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits gender-based employment discrimination. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, an amendment to Title VII, made it illegal to discriminate against pregnant women. Before the law, the Supreme Court ruled that excluding pregnancy from its definition of “sex discrimination” was appropriate because only a sub-class of women would be affected.

Due to public outrage, Congress passed legislation to include pregnancy in the law. In 1993 the Family and Medical Leave Act gave eligible workers up to 12 weeks unpaid leave to care for a child, spouse or sick parent, or allow medical leave for a serious health condition.

Delaware law parallels Title VII’s protections against sex-based discrimination in the workplace, but Delaware is one of only eight states that has not amended its statute to specifically protect pregnancy.

“What the law says and the reality that women face in the workplace are two very different things,” says Kathy Turkel, an assistant professor of women’s studies at the University of Delaware. “The fact that the law prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace doesn’t mean sex-based discrimination doesn’t happen.”

The United States and Australia are the only two industrialized countries who do not offer paid maternity leave. Though some companies do provide paid maternity leave, it is not mandatory in all states. Only three (New Jersey, California and Washington) have some form of paid family leave. Sweden, seen as a model of work-life balance, provides a year of paid leave, including some time for fathers.

The No. 1 reason highly trained women leave the workforce is due to lack of family time. Delaware boasts two companies that were selected for the 2007 100 Best Companies for Working Mothers award by Working Mother magazine: AstraZeneca and the DuPont Company.

AstraZeneca was also recognized as one of the 100 Best Companies to Work For by Fortune magazine in 2008 and received recognition from both the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption and Conceive magazine for its adoption and fertility benefits. The company offers flexible work options, benefits for part-time positions, lactation rooms, onsite childcare in Wilmington, 26 weeks leave, job guaranteed, for both birth and adoptive mothers, including seven of those weeks paid and one week paid for fathers.

AstraZeneca also has women and family employee network groups and adoption support. Andrea Moselle, a senior human resources manager for AstraZeneca, says “Both the family and employer win when you have a good work-life balance environment. You have satisfied, dedicated employees, and the company retention is high, saving on training and rehiring.”

Elizabeth Renz, a senior manager at AstraZeneca, faced a dilemma when she first interviewed with the company. She learned she was pregnant on the Saturday before the Monday she was offered a job. Before one life-changing moment had set in, she had to make a decision about another.

Renz accepted the offer. Two weeks later, after her first official appointment with a doctor, she informed her new employer.

“It wasn’t an easy decision to tell the company at first,” Renz says. “I even posted a question on a local women’s message board for advice. The overwhelming response was to keep my mouth shut. In the end, I felt it was my professional reputation at stake. I didn’t want to start off my new business relationships that way.”

Renz’s new manager said he didn’t see how the news would change anything. When Renz arrived at the company, the manager told her he’d shared the news with his manager and their human resources partner. The news was hers to share with colleagues whenever she felt comfortable.

“Mentally, I did feel added pressure to produce because I was pregnant in addition to being new,” says Renz. “I didn’t want to be the woman who was pregnant and not good at my job. Because I was going on maternity leave only seven months after starting, I felt I had a very small window in which I could leave an impression.”

Renz says colleagues were surprised to learn she was pregnant, but never negative.

“When you hire someone, you’re making a long-term investment in the person and their skills,” says Ray Parisi, Renz’s manager and senior director at AstraZeneca. “And with maternity or any medical leave, you have to put yourself in their shoes and think about how you would want to be treated. Looking at the bigger picture, this moment for them isn’t just a blip. It’s a major life event.”

Colleen Perrin of West Chester had a similar experience, but with a different outcome. Perrin had interviewed with a nearby company in Pennsylvania months before her pregnancy, yet she chose not to put her family plans on hold while waiting for job offers. “You have a life plan and a career plan, and I needed to pursue our life plan, despite where I was in my career,” Perrin says.
 

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Like Renz, Perrin was offered a job after she learned she was pregnant. Also like Renz, Perrin was concerned about starting the job pregnant before having established herself. But before starting, Perrin miscarried.

“I didn’t believe my work would have a negative reaction,” she says. “It was more me thinking about having to tell people shortly after I started and taking time off. I was so stressed that news of the miscarriage was almost, in a weird way, a relief.” No one at work ever knew about her experience. (Perrin eventually had a healthy pregnancy after that experience.)

Typical pregnancies with predictable schedules are not always the norm. Fertility treatments, miscarriages, abortions, difficult pregnancies—even adoptions—are anything but predictable.

One local woman, Susan (her name changed to protect her anonymity) faced the challenge of working during fertility treatment. Due to the number of appointments needed with her physician and the ability to see the doctor on short notice, Susan could not keep her goals a secret. Having worked for her Wilmington-based financial company for 10 years—some of them as a single mother—she didn’t expect that visiting a doctor once or twice a week for two-hour appointments would be an issue.

Susan shared her situation with her manager, who also had trouble conceiving naturally. The manager explained that she chose not to seek fertility treatment because she believed her obligation was to her career. That could have been a bond, yet Susan believes her manager’s treatment of her started to change. She was required to meet weekly about her schedule, the number of her high-profile projects were reduced, and she was singled out in group meetings for comment.

“I was made to feel as if I was doing something wrong,” Susan says, though she’d tried to schedule all appointments early in the morning and skip lunch hours to meet her time obligations. Ironically, her husband worked for the same company and went to all the same appointments, yet was required to do none of the reporting required of his wife.

Susan’s fertility treatments were unsuccessful. Her doctor told her stress could be a factor. Susan quit the financial company, then took a part-time job. She became pregnant two weeks later.

Barbara Stratton is a partner with Knepper and Stratton in Wilmington who represents plaintiffs in discrimination cases. She offers this advice to those looking for a healthy family-work environment: “There are some employers who work hard to allow employees balanced lifestyles. If you are looking for a job, talk to those who work there, who have worked there, and ask them how the work-life balance really is. I’ve heard women say, ‘I wish I talked to someone first.’ Once you have the facts, you can decide if it is the environment for you.”

Pregnancy involves risks that sometimes force women to make tough personal choices—choices that should not affect their employment. Earlier this year, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that firing an employee for aborting a pregnancy is discrimination that is prohibited under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

The plaintiff terminated her pregnancy after tests showed the fetus had severe deformities. Her employer allowed her a week off to recover. On the day of the baby’s funeral, the woman was fired for not following procedure for time off (though other employees who had not followed protocol had not been terminated). During the trial, it was also discovered that management did not agree with abortion.

“It is challenging to prove maternal profiling,” says Martinelli. “Being able to show inconsistencies in treatment is key to a successful discrimination case. The inconsistency may not always be due to discrimination, but it certainly puts the company in a tough position in terms of defending a pregnancy discrimination claim.”

In her presentations to companies, Martinelli advises that companies should provide reasonable leave policies and enforce them consistently. The EEOC issued new caregiver guidance in 2007 which addresses pregnancy discrimination as well as other sex-based discrimination that working mothers may experience.

“These family-related issues are not only about women,” says UD’s Turkel. “If we want to shape policy, we need to make clear that these policies will benefit everyone.”

The book and documentary “Motherhood Manifesto,” by Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, offers a six-point agenda to employers and workers who want to create a true work-life balance for families. Among the points are maternity-paternity leave, open and flexible work schedules, excellent childcare, and fair, realistic wages for all. MoveOn.org, cofounded by Blades, is working to make this agenda a reality.

One expert featured in the “Motherhood Manifesto” documentary simplified the issue: “We shouldn’t have to choose between putting food on the table and being at the table.”

 

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