When she got fired, Emily Singer, 29, didn’t know she was pregnant.
At the time, Singer was working as a reporter in New York City and fell victim to a massive layoff after her company was sold. Four days after being let go, she took a pregnancy test — and it came back positive.
“We were so excited about getting pregnant that I didn’t really think about my job situation for a few days,” says Singer, though the reality of her circumstances eventually set in. “The focus initially was on my health and making sure the pregnancy was viable." From there, the couple worked through their finances and realized they would be able to survive on a single income until the baby came. Still, Singer started reaching out to potential employers right away.
“It felt weird to go on interviews knowing I was pregnant,” Singer tells Refinery29. She adds that, due to a miscarriage scare, she decided against mentioning her pregnancy to prospective employers until things were more stable. “When I eventually got an offer, I had just hit 12 weeks and told my employer that I was pregnant,” she says. “They were totally accepting and happy for me.”
Not everyone is fortunate enough to have such a seamless transition. “I know a lot of women have bosses who are not as understanding,” Singer says. Sometimes, women lose their jobs while they are expecting, and beyond the initial shock of being let go, this can lead to an onerous situation: Looking for a job while pregnant.
Indeed, for many women* professionals, pregnancy is a fraught topic. Because of persistent gender biases and a working culture that routinely disadvantages women, juggling the desire to start a family with the pursuit of professional growth often becomes a double bind, one that manifests in insidious ways. While the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 is supposed to protect women from discrimination "on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions,” in practice, these legalities are not always enough.
Lori Mihalich-Levin, JD , has dedicated her career to empowering new working parents. She is the founder of Mindful Return, a community that helps new parents navigate the workplace and the author of Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave. “There’s any number of ways that employers can discriminate against pregnant women and new parents — even if they’re intending to be kind about it,” Mihalich-Levin tells Refinery29.
Mihalich-Levin admits that job hunting can be a challenge, particularly when it comes to choosing whether to disclose a pregnancy. "It’s a personal decision. There’s no law that says you must, and there are, of course, laws that say that an employer can’t ask,” she says, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean that pregnant jobseekers are immune to discrimination.
“Upon getting a job offer, a woman I know asked about parental leave policies, and the company rescinded the offer,” Mihalich-Levin says, adding that she believes the offer was rescinded solely because of the questions she asked since she never actually disclosed she was pregnant. “It’s disappointing because you don’t always have recourse as it’s hard to prove discrimination.”
There’s no law that says you must disclose your pregnancy, and there are, of course, laws that say that an employer can’t ask.
Miguel A. Suro, an attorney in Miami, FL, says the best course of action in these situations is to contact an employment lawyer. He adds that many lawyers will work on contingency, meaning fees are only paid if the case is successful. Still, Suro admits that discrimination law can be incredibly complex and difficult to navigate, especially because each state has its own laws in addition to federal law.
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Vanessa Gonzalez experienced this legal gray area first hand after she was forced out of her job as a project manager at an advertising agency while on maternity leave in 2013. Gonzalez took a leave of absence from her job, covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), in May with a return date at the end of September. A week before her leave ended, Gonzalez’s manager informed her that her position was being relocated from Los Angeles, CA to the company’s Dallas, TX headquarters and that she was no longer needed. “I was angry and upset but mostly scared,” Gonzalez told Refinery29. “I was with the organization for six years and felt betrayed. I had a three-month-old and was out of a job.”
Gonzalez immediately began searching for legal information online and eventually contacted a lawyer, but her case wasn’t clear cut. Her employer had fewer than 50 employees, so her job wasn’t protected under the FMLA. It was further complicated by the employer being based in Texas.
I was angry and upset but mostly scared. I was with the organization for six years and felt betrayed. I had a three-month-old and was out of a job.
The lawyer Gonzalez spoke with said she could possibly prove it was discrimination, but she also was very open about her high fees. She recommended Gonzalez appeal to her boss on a personal level to see if she could get a better severance package. After talking with her previous employer, Gonzalez was eventually granted two weeks severance and her benefits were extended for an additional month. She felt disheartened by the situation but decided not to take legal action. “I was up against a wall with no choice or resources. I should’ve pushed further to fight it.”
But, of course, landing the job isn’t the end of the battle. Mihalich-Levin has written extensively about the motherhood penalty, and the other systematic disadvantages facing working mothers related to compensation and perceived competence in the professional world. Shifting this deeply-rooted status quo requires employers to begin normalizing, de-gendering, and “de-parenting” workplace flexibility, Mihalich-Levin says, adding that when employers start to invest in new parents for the long haul, the corporate world begins to look very different. “It will look like a place where you can show up as yourself, do your job, and be recognized — not be fearful and try to hide,” she says.
Despite her challenges, Gonzalez used the terrible experience to make a career pivot. After freelancing for three years, she went on to pursue a Master’s of Communication at USC and graduated in December 2018. Her son is now five years old.
Looking back, Gonzalez admits she would have done a lot of things differently. “While pregnant, I spent so much of my time educating myself on caring for a newborn, yet no one ever spoke to me about maternal rights,” Gonzalez says, adding that she wishes she’d had more resources and education. “I was unprepared and never want to be put in that situation again — being a new mother was hard enough!”
*Though we use the word ‘women’ in this piece, we acknowledge that these challenges also extend for trans and gender nonconforming people who do not identify as female.
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