At a time when most pregnant women want and need to work, and more American workers struggle to balance work and family, discrimination against pregnant women and workers with caregiving responsibilities remains a significant problem, experts told the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) at a public meeting recently. The meeting follows up on commission meetings in 2007, when the Commission issued its groundbreaking “Enforcement Guidance on Unlawful Disparate Treatment of Workers with Caregiving Responsibilities” and in 2009 when the commission issued “Employer Best Practices for Workers with Caregiving Responsibilities”

“Pregnancy discrimination persists in the 21st century workplace, unnecessarily depriving women of the means to support their families,” said EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien. “Similarly, caregivers – both men and women – too often face unequal treatment on the job. The EEOC is committed to ensuring that job applicants and employees are not subjected to unlawful discrimination on account of pregnancy or because of their efforts to balance work and family responsibilities.”

Despite the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) more than 30 years ago, women still often face demotions, prejudice, and even job loss when they become pregnant. The past 40 years have seen a major increase in the number of women choosing to work while pregnant and during the later stages of pregnancy, Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel of the National Women’s Law Center, told the commission. Moreover, women currently make up 47% of the nation’s workforce, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data cited by Judith Lichtman, senior advisor for the National Partnership for Women and Families. They are now the primary, or co-primary, breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of families. Because of this, “women cannot afford to lose their jobs or income due to pregnancy or childbirth,” Lichtman said.

In addition to discrimination based on pregnancy, women and men face obstacles in their work lives due to their roles as caregivers. According to Lynn Friss Feinberg, Senior Strategic Policy Advisor at the AARP Public Policy Institute, the aging of the population and changing demographics mean that “42% of U.S. workers have provided care for an aging relative or friend in the past five years,” and almost half of U.S. workers expect to provide eldercare in the next five years, Feinberg said. These numbers do not include workers who care for children.

Panelists Sharon Terman and Joan Williams cited numerous examples of the kinds of discrimination pregnant workers and workers with caregiving responsibilities experience. Terman, of The Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center, described situations in which pregnant women were met with harassment and hostility in response to their pregnancies, or were subjected to decreased hours, forced unpaid leave, or job loss. Williams, director of the Center for Worklife Law at Hastings Law School and a leading expert on caregiver bias, recounted the story of a pregnant worker who was not permitted to alter her uniform due to her pregnancy but forced to take leave when it no longer fit her. Williams also pointed out examples of men who were penalized by their employers for requesting to use leave to which they were entitled for caregiving responsibilities, based on gender stereotypes that dictate caregiving should be “women’s work.”