Pregnancy is a beautiful time for many. But for some, it also includes feelings of stress and anxiety about work and money
What is the Pregnancy Penalty?
The pregnancy penalty refers to the discrimination working women face for being pregnant. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s 2012 Atlantic article coined the term to describe the discrimination many working women experience after announcing their pregnancies. Promotion setbacks, lower wages, and limited job mobility are just a few examples.
The pregnancy penalty doesn’t only affect working moms and their families, but also the businesses that employ them. Many supervisors still believe that women have “baby brain” while pregnant and that women with children are easily distracted on the job. The assumption that women divide attention that was once reserved solely for the workplace makes it easier for employers to claim underperformance, to deny career enhancing opportunities that involve physical labor or extended travel, and to cut hours for wage workers..
According to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it’s unlawful to discriminate against someone based on pregnancy, delivery, or other associated health issues. This act was amended in 1978 to prohibit any discrimination from employers toward pregnant women.
However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reported that, in 2021, 2,261 complaints were filed against employers for pregnancy discriminationPregnancy cases can be tricky because they may also overlap with other protected categories, like gender, race/ethnic origin, pay equity, and disability status. And, of course, there are many incidents that never get filed or never reach the federal complaint phase.
Whether you’ve experienced this yourself already or are hoping to prevent it before your next pregnancy, here’s what you need to know about how the pregnancy penalty works.
Pregnancy Burns a Hole in Your Pocket
Pregnancy has many hidden financial costs that fall to birth moms. Frequent doctor appointments can mean days of unpaid work for mothers, while copays, lab work, and medications can also tap into savings. Unless moms are in very stable work with adequate health insurance, pregnancy itself can be financially taxing. Not to mention, many women these days undergo expensive IVF before conceiving.
Why are these financial dips that many women can’t afford to take?
Well, women still earn less than men. Data from the Brookings Institute, AAUW, and the Pew Research center all confirm that the gender wage gap persists. On average, women make 82 cents for every $1 earned by men and it only gets worse by race. Black women make 62c to the dollar, American Indian and Alaska Natives 57cents, and Hispanic and Latinas come in at 54 cents.
Also, the pregnancy penalty affects the most marginalized workers the most. Those who work hourly jobs with high turnover and low benefits don’t have the time to make up for lost ground in their careers after the baby is born.
How can women avoid the pregnancy penalty?
- First things first, know your rights. Read your employee handbooks and HR manuals to understand the rules and protections your employer offers women during pregnancy. This might mean work-for-home or flexible hours, as well as paid leave for doctor’s appointments. Read the EEOC definition of pregnancy discrimination and use the formal process, if needed.
- Prepare for the financial impact of parenthood by over-saving, bolstering insurance (including temporary salary replacement), and planning ahead to shoulder childcare responsibilities with co-parents and family. Powering through pregnancy isn’t the only challenge, moms also have to maintain work output through postpartum recovery (including breastfeeding and lactation) and the years before children are in full-time school.
- Choose your career path wisely. Expanding your family can be a life changing experience. The pregnancy penalty can be minimized in certain fields, but some are still patriarchal and don’t bend well to the needs of female workers. Coming face to face with this abrupt reality may force working moms to adjust their careers towards more balanced and affirming ways of bringing home the bacon. If you’re shopping around for a new job, don’t only consider salary but also the work-life balance options available, including paid or on-site childcare and lactation rooms. All of these things will matter much more than you might initially assume.