This Date in USCF History: Pregnancy Equity

Monday, March 13, 2023

Originally published in Synapse on March 11, 1987.

A recent Supreme Court decision upholding certain types of pregnancy leave and a move by a major corporation to restrict pregnant women from jobs with exposure to potentially toxic chemicals have similar far-reaching and controversial implications for all female workers.

Celebrating International Women’s Week gives us time to reflect on the issues raised by these events — and to understand that the answers lie in moving beyond our history to define new and better responses.

The January court ruling that states may require employers to provide special job rights to workers physically disabled by pregnancy is a landmark decision that finally and belatedly recognizes the crucial changes of recent decades in the demographics of the American workforce.

Nonetheless, the decision is only a first step.

The California law upheld by the court applies only if “pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions” prevent a woman from being physically able to work. The next step is to require employers to have optional parenting leave for both men and women.

According to 1985 Bureau of Labor statistics, 48 percent of women who have children under 1 year of age are in the workforce; 50 percent of mothers of children under 3 years old work; and 60 percent of mothers with children between 3- and 5-years old work.

This majority necessitates the institution of carefully considered, equitable maternity and paternity leave, as well as improved provisions for adequate day-care for such children.

The controversy with pregnancy leave per se is that it treads the fine line of preferential treatment for women.

Indeed, the potential economic impact of such a policy, especially for small businesses, is a primary reason why such groups as the Chamber of Commerce oppose it — and ironically, why the feminist National Organization of Women argues against any preferential law, worrying that it might make employers reluctant to hire women of childbearing age.

This aspect of the Supreme Court ruling connects the judicial issue with the other recent pregnancy-in-the-workplace news.

Also in January, AT&T decided to bar pregnant women from working in jobs that require exposure to chemicals potentially hazardous to fetal health.

The policy is in response to a University of Massachusetts study showing a significant increase in miscarriage rate among workers in such areas.

Obviously, requiring pregnant women to transfer away from such toxic occupational exposure is more a protective move than a preferential one. Indeed, there may also be as yet undiscovered reproductive risks for male workers in such jobs, as well.

Yet the AT&T policy could ostensibly extend to forbidding the hiring of any woman of reproductive age regardless of her current pregnancy status. The result — discrimination against female job applicants — could mirror what might happen if mandatory pregnancy leave were interpreted as being preferential for women and would return us to the dark ages before equal opportunity laws helped to enforce women’s rights in the working world.

The final answers to these issues are far from being found and yet demand our immediate and profound attention, for they will have an impact on every working woman, whether it be prenatally or postnatally.