In 2010, I was the director of a small historic site in Philadelphia. I made $30,000 a year. About a year into my employment, I became pregnant with my son while I was also negotiating a modest raise with the site’s board of directors. When I told the board that I wanted to share the happy news that I was pregnant, I was met with dead silence. Then a male board member said, “Now we must deal with this." It was nothing less than humiliating.
After my meeting, as the board was still debating my raise, I emailed my ideal maternity-leave plan because there was nothing listed in our employee handbook. I asked for just eight weeks off, and volunteered to take this time with no pay. I promised to be available by phone throughout that time to assist my (already very capable) staff. Less than a week after that board meeting, my raise was denied and I never received a response to my maternity-leave plan. It’s probably shocking to no one that I soon after quit a job where I felt so undervalued.
I was reminded of this experience when presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren recounted her own workplace discrimination story on Twitter. In 1971, a 22-year-old Warren was finishing up her first year of teaching and was visibly pregnant. Her principal told her the job she was promised earlier that year would now go to someone else.
What followed Warren’s tweet was simultaneously disturbing and heartening. As someone who’d faced very real discrimination while pregnant, I found it upsetting to see some people question the veracity of Warren’s account. But on the other hand, I saw many women sharing their own #MeToo-style confessionals about the workplace discrimination they faced while pregnant or raising children.
In 1978, just seven years after Warren’s story took place, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) was passed, prohibiting sex discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions under Title VII, which covers employers with 15 or more employees.
Was what happened to me outright discrimination? It’s hard to say and probably even harder to prove. As an employee at a small institution with fewer than 15 employees, I wasn’t protected by the 1978 act. And even if I had been, it was still a deeply embarrassing and hurtful experience.
Legislation alone has not changed how women are culturally treated in the workplace. Mothers are still facing varying degrees of discrimination and are chronically underpaid.
Critics have lambasted Warren for telling her story about pregnancy discrimination in a few different ways. I get why Warren did that. After my work experience with my first pregnancy, I would always explain in job interviews that I left my beloved job because I wanted to stay at home with my son. But that was a lie I told to save face, part defense tactic and part to mask my own embarrassment. I’d left because I felt undervalued as an employee and unsupported as a mother — but it wouldn’t look right to trash my former employer in an interview.
In 2013, I was doing freelance work part time but itching to get back to my full-time career. I was also pregnant again, with my daughter. An ideal job came up that combined history and nature, two of my passions, at another small site. I applied and at the end of my cover letter I wrote the following:
“In the matter of full disclosure I am expecting a second child in April. However I could not let such a perfect opportunity for myself slip by without applying. I do not see the birth of my child affecting my ability to return to the field.”
Weeks after I’d submitted my resumé and letter, I received a call from the president of the board who was conducting the job search. She told me I was the most qualified candidate for the position based on my resumé, but because of my pregnancy, they were not going to bring me in for an interview. I tried to persuade her that it wasn’t an issue. She even asked me explicitly for my child-care situation, which, like Warren, I had a plan for already. I was unsuccessful in changing her mind and again, I felt deeply embarrassed. I put off applying for full-time jobs for almost another year.
Eventually, I did go back to work and was hired full time by a woman, a mother herself, who was not put off that I had children. She was accommodating when I asked to go to Halloween parades or needed to work from home with a sick child. I noted when I was hired, even though I was done having children myself, there was a paternity-leave policy in place even though there were fewer than 15 employees. I have moved on since that job and have continued to have the privilege to work for bosses and boards who value mothers in their workplaces.
While being a mother in the workplace can still feel like an act of resistance in 2019, I know there are plenty of us. I see us with our breast milk pump bags on the subway. I see us wiping yogurt off our work clothes at drop-offs to schools and day cares. I see us on our lunch breaks buying napkins for school parties.
That is why I know my story and Warren’s are not singular. This isn’t happening in a vacuum. I know there are many mothers over generations who have stories to share of both subtle to forthright discrimination in our workplaces and now it’s time to share these stories. As the second anniversary of the #MeToo movement approaches, the reaction to Warren’s story is a reminder that there are still miles to go when it comes to workplace equality for women — and even further to go if women choose to become mothers.