Pregnant Women on the Firing Line

Several global media outlets, including CBS News and The Guardian (click here and here) have published anecdotal accounts of pregnant women being pushed out of the workplace. Such vulnerability for pregnant workers is well known among gender inequality scholars and civil rights agencies. Data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in fact, reveals a 46% increase in pregnancy discrimination complaints from 1997 to 2011, with over half of these pertaining to firing. Even so, and despite greater efforts of civil rights agencies to draw attention to the problem in Europe, Australia, and the United States, few studies have investigated pregnant women’s experiences, let alone how and why employers engage in such conduct despite its illegality.

Byron_blogimage1We decided to take up this challenge and analyzed eighty-five verified discrimination case narratives from the Ohio Civil Rights Commission to assess what pregnant employees say about their terminations from work and how employers justify their decisions in the face of federal legal protections like the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.

Pregnant workers in our sample point to specific organizational actors, such as their supervisors or company owners, who directly took part in their termination. They also identified other non-pregnant workers in their workplaces who had, for instance, more absences, less seniority, lower job performance or more workplace infractions, but who were not sanctioned or pushed out at all.  On the face of it, this seems like a reasonable strategy in trying to combat discrimination and keep one’s job. Yet, it is infrequent that pregnant women win and maintain their employment in such cases. This fact led us even deeper into the data and case materials, looking more specifically at how employers justified their behaviors and how this all might appear to external audiences. Byron_blogimage2

Pregnant women are clearly at a disadvantage to employers when it comes to resources, such as the ability to hire an attorney, if such matters arise. No less consequential, we found, is how employers used seemingly neutral bureaucratic rules and language when both firing pregnant workers and defending their actions.  Rarely would an employer ever specifically acknowledge or mention pregnancy as the cause. This is especially noteworthy given how bureaucratic rules and procedures are often seen as rational and “gender-blind”—indeed, bureaucratic rules and procedures are more often portrayed as the solution to malfeasance and workplace inequality.  Our analyses, in contrast, suggest that this is hardly always the case.

Employer Justifications for Pregnancy-Based Firing Discrimination


One key element of employer power in the aforementioned regards resides in how their unjust actions and legitimating discourses occur behind the veil of bureaucratic impartiality and objectivity. Employers in our data engaged in a two-pronged process of symbolically vilifying pregnant workers as encumbered and “undependable” employees while symbolically amplifying ostensibly fair, neutral organizational policies and financial interests that guided their decisionmaking.

Pregnant women, in these employer accounts, are presented as undependable workers because of physical limitations or violations of attendance and tardiness policies.  Such concerns may, at face-value, seem legitimate in a business sense. However, the same policies and rationales were not invoked in the case of non-pregnant employees (including those with worse records of performance, attendance, tardiness etc.). Employers also contend that their decisions really have little to do with the pregnant employee herself and, instead, mostly concern workplace restructuring, cost savings and/or the inability to bear financial cost relative to accommodating particular employee needs.  Importantly, and as noted by scholars such as Lauren Edelman, rationales that bring “neutral” bureaucratic governance and business-centered logics to the forefront are often viewed as legitimate when and if such cases reach the courts (click here).

When viewed side by side, the structural power advantages and culturally resonant rhetorical strategies employers use more often than not overshadow pregnant employees’ voices. The fundamentally gendered character of most workplace rules and gender-laden nature of governing federal legislation do little to reduce these power differentials. In the end, we call for greater attention to these relational power imbalances and for equality advocates to challenge the cultural, organizational, and business-centered biases against pregnant women in the workforce.

By Reginald A. Byron, Southwestern University and Vincent J. Roscigno, Ohio State University, on their article, “Relational Power, Legitimation, and Pregnancy Discrimination,” forthcoming in the June 2014 issue of Gender & Society. The article is currently available here through OnlineFirst, and here through the press release


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