Pregnancy discrimination may be on the rise. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has reported an up-tick in such complaints. Over the past year, complaints of pregnancy discrimination complaints rose 14% to 5,587. This represents the biggest annual increase in 13 years. Even more alarming, the number of pregnancy discrimination complaints has surged 40% from a decade ago. To read more about this trend, check out Sue Shellenbarger’s informative article in the Wall Street Journal entitled, More Women Pursue Claims of Pregnancy Discrimination.
Pregnancy discrimination, also known as family rights discrimination, has certainly picked up steam in the past two years. In December 2007, for instance, the New York Times published a sampling of newly minted buzzwords. Included in the list was “maternal profiling,” which the Times defined as:
Employment discrimination against a woman who has, or will have, children. The term has been popularized by members of MomsRising, an advocacy group promoting the rights of mothers in the workplace.
(The article is entitled, All We Are Saying)
Surprisingly, the Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices statute (M.G.L. c. 151B, §4) does not explicitly prohibit discrimination based upon parenthood. In 2006, a Massachusetts Superior Court in Sivieri v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts interpreted the statute to include such a prohibition. Under Sivieri, pregnancy discrimination constitutes gender discrimination.
In Sivieri, the plaintiff worked as a paralegal for the state Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA). In November 1999, Sivieri gave birth to her daughter. After returning from maternity leave, Sivieri’s direct supervisor allegedly made numerous negative comments about her pregnancy. In one instance, her supervisor allegedly remarked that their work unit would maintain its productivity as long as no other employees became pregnant. Thereafter, Sivieri was passed up for a promotion for which she believed she was qualified.
In 2002, Sivieri filed suit on the basis that DTA’s failure to promote her constituted unlawful gender discrimination. Relying on the plain language of M.G.L. c. 151B, §4, DTA moved for summary judgment, arguing that the alleged discrimination related to parental status vs. gender, and parents are not members of a protected category under Chapter 151. The Superior Court rejected DTA’s position, holding that her supervisor’s negative remarks toward pregnancy and child rearing was based on gender stereotypes and, therefore, constituted gender discrimination.
The Sivieri decision is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. As the EEOC’s statistics indicate, however, there is still much progress to be made.