By: Tiffanie Benfer, Esq.
In the past year the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) experienced a record number of pregnancy discrimination filings. Women with child bearing responsibilities have typically reported experiencing discrimination when they informed their employers that they were pregnant. The EEOC has also received a surge in claims from women who have experienced discrimination simply because they are mothers. Women report they are not being considered by prospective employers and not being awarded promotions because they have children. This type of discrimination has nothing to do with any perceived notion of a pregnant woman’s ability to work. Rather, women are being discriminated against based on stereotyped sex roles. Women are responsible for family care giving and therefore, are often seen as incapable of performing at the same level as their male peers in the workplace.
Laurie Chadwick of Maine encountered this type of discrimination from her employer when she applied for a promotion and the position was given to an employee with less experience and lower performance scores. Chadwick’s employer discovered that she had four children, including 6-year old triplets, around the same time she applied for the promotion. When she did not receive the promotion, her employer informed her it was because she had “too much on her plate.” She brought a claim against her employer, and on March 26, 2009 the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit determined that she had a strong enough case to survive summary judgment, rejecting the District Court’s requisite that the employer’s words explicitly indicate Chatwick’s sex was the basis for the employer’s assumption about her inability to balance work and family. The Court also established that this type of discrimination can be committed by both men and women. The Court rejected the employer’s contention that it could not be liable for gender discrimination because a female supervisor had failed to promote Chadwick because of preconceived stereotypes. See http://www.ca1.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/getopn.pl?OPINION=08-1685P.01A.
In the 1989 landmark case Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, the Supreme Court pointedly gender
discrimination and noted, “[W]e are beyond the day when an employer could evaluate employees by assuming or insisting that they matched the stereotype associated with their group.” This is a caution to employers that stereotyping women with young children by assuming that they will allow family issues to interfere with their work constitutes gender discrimination. Employers need to be on guard both against stereotyping and against innocent behavior that might be interpreted by a court as unlawful stereotyping.
In April 2009, in an effort to guard against such bias, the EEOC issued guidelines and provided examples of attitudes to avoid when it comes to employees with caregiver responsibilities. See http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/caregiver-best-practices.html
Some have argued that the new regulations issued by the EEOC are unnecessary because the issues are covered by existing laws. However, the surge in EEOC filings suggest that employers still need education to avoid violation or perceived violation of the “existing laws” that prohibit sex discrimination based on stereotyping working women with families. The EEOC is not the only organization attempting to bring this issue to the forefront. Lobbyists are promoting legislation that would add “family caregiver” to the list of protected classes under state anti-discrimination laws.
The EEOC’s decision to release guidelines on care giving duties is a message to employers to take notice that this type of gender discrimination is an agency priority, and as such it would behoove employers to review their polices and educate their employees that stereotyping female workers with care-giving responsibilities constitutes gender discrimination.