Episode 3: The Motherhood Penalty, Part 1
Working mothers, especially Black mothers, face systemic disadvantages in the workplace more often than their childless female counterparts—in terms of pay, perceived competence, benefits and opportunities for advancement. In this episode, mom and nonprofit worker Brandyn shares her heart-wrenching experience of not one, but two, incidents of what she believes was pregnancy discrimination—with two different employers—during the same debilitating high-risk pregnancy.
In The Gap was created with the support of the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and In These Times magazine. Contact the show at email@example.com.
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CHANDRA THOMAS WHITFIELD, HOST: Welcome to In The Gap, a podcast about how and why Black women aren’t getting their green. I’m your host, journalist Chandra Thomas Whitfield. This podcast is about how the gender pay gap continues to affect the lives and livelihoods of Black women. And also how long standing attitudes and beliefs about race and gender also impact their experiences in the workplace.
Today, we tackle the motherhood penalty. The ways that pregnancy and managing parental responsibilities affect how Black women are often treated, and some say, mistreated on their jobs.
BRANDYN: It was horrible. It was the lowest point I’ve ever been in my life. I physically didn’t feel well, I wasn’t doing anything wrong. You know, I’m pregnant, I’m having a baby, we should be excited about this. I’m wanting to work, I’m doing work, I’m doing it well, and I’m being treated like crap.
WHITFIELD: That’s our guest today, Brandyn, sharing one of the many heartbreaking experiences that she endured from co workers and her bosses while working at a small nonprofit during an especially difficult pregnancy.
As you’ll find out, her story aligns closely with what researchers have long asserted: that Black women are often penalized on the job once they choose to have children, in terms of salaries, hiring, promotions and perceived competence.
The good news is that the research suggests that Black women are less likely than white women to experience a loss of pay due to pregnancy and motherhood. But as you’ll hear today, many Black women say employers simply ignore their pregnancies, or treat it as one huge inconvenience that interferes with their productivity at work, something we learned in our previous episode that has roots dating all the way back to slavery.
Brandyn, and I’m only using her first name to protect her privacy, doesn’t need any research or data to confirm the prevalence of pregnancy discrimination. She says she lived it, not once, but two times in the same pregnancy.
She joins us now to share her story. Welcome to In The Gap, Brandyn.
BRANDYN: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.
WHITFIELD: So let’s start from the beginning. So can you just walk us through your situation from the beginning? When was this, where were you working and what job did you hold?
BRANDYN: So this was in Philadelphia, and it started in Fall 2017, that’s when I got pregnant with my second child, my daughter, Riley. And I was working at a small nonprofit and held the position of senior manager. I didn’t actually manage folks, but I did a lot of program management and institutional relations and strategy type of work.
WHITFIELD: So you’re working here and you find out you’re pregnant. So when would you say the problem started?
BRANDYN: Honestly, from the very beginning, just about a mismatch between what I had been told and what the organization was. And because of those factors, I suspected that I would have some problems when I announced my pregnancy.
So even in advance of telling my employer that I was pregnant, I sought counsel from the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia, which is a really tremendous organization, just to get some background and to understand what some of my rights were before I announced that I was expecting and once I did make the announcement, the issues started immediately, at the initial meeting to say that I was pregnant and wanting to find out about maternity leave, the organization did not have any maternity leave plan. And I was told by the executive director that we don’t have to follow any of the laws. That is what she stated to me verbatim, so I knew very early on that I was in trouble.
Thankfully, I was overall healthy, but I was having a lot of physical discomfort that happened really early on, starting at 18 weeks, something called pelvic symphysis dysfunction, meaning that the longer I was standing and walking, the more pain I had. So I lived five minutes from the train station and there were times when I got home but I thought I’d have to call an Uber to take me home. I’d be in that much pain for most of the pregnancy.
So my OB wanted me to see a physical therapist to try to ease some of that discomfort and I got pushback about that. My job was not really willing to work with me to try to accommodate those appointments. It turned out that for insurance reasons, I’d have to go to a little bit of a distance to get physical therapy, and they just did not want to hear anything about not being in the office. Didn’t matter what I tried to suggest, they were not interested.
I explained the situation to my OB who unfortunately shared with me that she had seen things like this a lot with her patients so suggested that maybe I approached them about working from home once a week, just to get off of my feet a little bit. I had a primarily administrative job, she thought that sounded reasonable, I did as well.
And so I took that to my employer, and was told, “Oh, you know, that would put a lot of undue stress on the rest of the staff,” which is an assertion to this day I have no idea what that means, because it wasn’t true. And more than that there was another woman who worked from home really as she pleased. And I had a medical reason for requesting that accommodation.
WHITFIELD: And research has found that Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy related complications than white women.
BRANDYN: You’re right. And I can also mention I was geriatric pregnancy. So I was 40 at the time I was pregnant. And so at the end of the pregnancy, had to have appointments every single week. And already knowing that I had these issues just getting some help for physical pain, I was really worried months in advance about what would happen at that point.
WHITFIELD: There’s some research by an organization called Childbirth Connection, and they estimated that approximately 250,000 pregnant workers are denied requests for accommodation each year. And many women don’t ask for them, as they report, because of fear of retaliation from employers, and many do not report pregnancy related discrimination because they are afraid to lose their jobs. Now was that the case for you? Did you feel if you responded to this lack of accommodation that they would find a way to, I guess, make you resign or feel that, you know, you needed to be out of that position?
BRANDYN: For better or for worse, I was so sick for all of my pregnancy, I had the pain that I mentioned, but I also was nauseous for the whole time, that I just was willing to draw a line in the sand and fight to a reasonable extent. But I will say when you’re under that much stress already, you just want to have your baby, you want to be left alone. So I completely understand people not fighting. And I say that I fight in terms of, you know, I pushed back, but I didn’t pursue any legal recourse, and I do regret that to this day. I do think it was the right decision at the time. But I really don’t like that this employer got off the hook.
WHITFIELD: The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, it’s called PDA, has been around since October 31, 1978. And while people feel like it’s a step in the right direction, many women complain that it is not being enforced. You didn’t choose to take legal action. So what did you do after you were denied this request?
BRANDYN: I was really surprised to hear that statistics, it’s 78 and we still have all of these challenges. And then I’ll also mention that on the state level, most states have some anti-pregnancy discrimination legislation on the books but Pennsylvania is not one of those states. The nonprofit I worked for with a very small organization so a lot of federal laws like the PDA didn’t extend to that particular organization which I unfortunately found out Philadelphia does have an ordinance that in theory covered my position.
So the attorney I worked with at the Women’s Law Project really coached me on how to speak with them about it. And I, at one meeting pretty much verbatim cited the act and pushbacked on that contention that we don’t have to follow any of the laws. And I think it was clear to them that I had sought legal advice, because I think it would be unusual for the average person just to be speaking about a law verbatim.
I think that they got the hint. That doesn’t mean that I was treated any better, but they did, after a lot of hemming and hawing, when the lawyer said, you know, with this, the fact that there was another coworker who doesn’t have a need who’s allowed to work from home, that right there would be, if we wanted to pursue action, there’s a lot of credence based on that.
So they did let me work from home once a week, put a lot of rules around it that didn’t exist for anyone else. You know how to check in at the beginning, what are you going to accomplish, then at the end of the day had to tell them what I did accomplish. But I did get that in the end.
WHITFIELD: You know, what was the race of the person who was allowed? Do you think that there was a racial component of this?
BRANDYN: I do. It was a white woman. And she just, you know, she just felt like, “Oh, I have a meeting here. I’m just gonna work from home.” Didn’t have to be planned, it was very casual for her, but for me, “Oh, that would put an undue burden on staff.” I do think there was a racial component.
WHITFIELD: So it is important to know that Pregnancy Discrimination claims filed under the PDA may be filed with the EEOC or with state or local fair employment practices agencies around the country, and they are designated to receive those charges under federal or state law.
And you know, this may give you a little hope, Brandyn, but on January 14 of 2020, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which is a bipartisan effort to address issues around accommodations for pregnancy in workers, it had a historic milestone. It had received bipartisan approval by the House Committee on Education and Labor.
And this is interesting because the bill is expected to proceed through the House floor for a vote but this measure had previously failed despite having been introduced in every legislative session since 2012. So 2020, maybe this is the year. But back to your story. Your story did not end there.
BRANDYN: Even though all of that was happening, felt the worst I’d had in my life. I was actively job searching for, really since that initial meeting, and I knew as I got more and more visibly pregnant, that my chances would be, you know, diminished, but still wanted to desperately get out of my circumstance so I applied at a company I had applied to previously, had stayed in touch with a hiring manager. And it sounded like they had a position that was a great fit. I interviewed, it was fantastic, I was offered this position.
Oh my gosh, I couldn’t believe how happy I was. I was going to be getting out of the hell that was my job. Or so I thought. What happened after that, a friend works at that organization and out of respect for her, I did divulge to the woman I interviewed with who would be the manager of the position that I was expecting. I was about six months pregnant at the time. She said, “Oh you know, thanks for telling me but I could care less. I think you’re a great fit for this position.” She called, she offered the position.
I had no idea what the pay would be, the pay was in line with what hoping it would be. So I was thrilled. And when we got to the process of contacting HR, doing the paperwork, I asked a question about, we were talking about starting dates, and I want to leave as much time to train before I went off on maternity leave. So asked the question, what were they thinking that the leave would look like.
And then things changed all of a sudden. I got a call that, “Oh, you know what? They were actually a little bit preliminary in offering you this position. You need to interview with one more sales manager before we can do the offer.” So the offer was rescinded.
I wasn’t too terribly concerned because I’m very good at interviews. I knew okay, great. I’ll be fine. I was annoyed but not alarmed. The Sales Manager clearly likes me, it was a good conversation. But then she contacted me and let me know that, ”You know what, we’ve had to put a freeze on all positions. So unfortunately, we won’t be able to offer you this job that you were just offered.”
I think everything changed once I got in touch with HR and mentioned leave. I think that the manager and her manager, I think they were fine with it. They both, I mean, they met with me, by that point I was showing. They knew that I would be a good fit that I’d be great at the job. I think that they were okay with it.
I think someone at the corporate office for whatever reason, thought, “Wow you’re hiring someone, and they’re pregnant.” That’s when everything went left. And so I think that the really unclear messages that happened after that, the scrambling the, “Oh, wait, we offered this prematurely.” I think that they were forced to rescind the offer, to undo what they had done. That’s my theory on what happened.
WHITFIELD: How did all of this make you feel? Obviously you’re pregnant, how did all this make you feel like, you know, having this request for accommodation denied overtly, and then in turn getting an offer actually rescinded after being assured that pregnancy was not an issue?
BRANDYN: It was horrible. It was the lowest point I’ve ever been in in my life. I physically didn’t feel well, I wasn’t doing anything wrong, you know, I’m pregnant, I’m having a baby, we should be excited about this. I’m wanting to work, I’m doing work, I’m doing it well and I’m being treated like crap due to no fault of my own. And when, you know I’m a fighter, as I think most Black women have to be, when things got rough at the job I had, I fought, I scrapped, I went to find something else. And then that didn’t work out.
So I just sank into a depression, I would say. I remember my sister wanted to have you know a small, not a baby shower, but something small to celebrate. And I reached out to her and just asked her to cancel and said, “I just, right now, I don’t want to celebrate anything. I just want to keep my head down and have this baby.” It made me feel horrible.
WHITFIELD: You know my eyes are welling up hearing that because again, like you said, you know pregnancy, you know, we everyone who’s on this earth was the result of a pregnancy and the idea that you would be penalized, and women just happened to be the ones that can actually give birth. I mean, it’s just, that’s just the way things are, and to be penalized for trying to bring life in the world, just heartbreaking.
I mean, there’s nothing else to say it’s heartbreaking, it’s unfortunate and then in the form of pregnancy, it is illegal to deny someone a job or an opportunity, accommodation or promotion based on being pregnant. And that’s something that, you know, women need to know.
And just to pull this back, because this, again, is about Black women, a lot of the research says that race affects this specifically with Black women because there’s, dating back to slavery, there’s this belief that Black women have got to work, you know, regardless of marital status, regardless of pregnancy status or parenthood, the belief is, you know, the research shows that, Black women are needed and targeted for labor, like that is your role. And parenting in many minds is secondary for Black women. So when you think about that, from a historical context what comes to mind for you?
BRANDYN: It breaks my heart to think about it and about all that we’ve had to endure and all that we’re continuing to endure. And it’s exactly right. I remember coming home and saying, you know, “I find it hard to believe that if I had blond hair and blue eyes that I would be treated this way.” And that’s not to say that women with blond hair and blue eyes don’t experience pregnancy discrimination. But there is just this total lack of acknowledgement that I was a human being.
I remember my boss at the time her dog died and she was treated, outpouring of concern by the same woman who said to me, “Oh, we don’t have to follow the laws.” That got better treatment than me, what should have been a happy occasion, me trying to bring life into the world and grow my family.
If I may, just one other story that comes to mind, and really, that ended everything. I had to go to the hospital two times at eight months pregnant because I was so sick, I couldn’t even keep water down. And the second time this happened, I went to work the next day, I knew I shouldn’t have. But I just wanted to try to get as much leave as I could, and just be done with it.
So I went in the next day, the executive director didn’t say a word to me, didn’t ask if I was okay, didn’t speak to me the whole time. I went home, went to lie down, got a notification that I had an email at work. Shouldn’t have checked it, this was a Friday, but I did, and it was that woman sending a message saying, “Oh, I didn’t get your weekly report. I need you to make this a priority.” And I had had it at that point. I shot back a message saying, “This is not my pr iority. My health and my baby’s health are a priority.” So I just went into the office the next day and said, “I’m done.”
Yeah, that’s what ultimately happened. I was more professional than I should have been, as we always have to be, and said, “You know, I’m just, I’m feeling so horrible. I just need to take the time off till I have the baby.” They were under the impression that I would return to work and they reached out, you know, when my baby was probably two months old, and asked if I’d be returning, and I said, “You know, no, I’ve just made the decision that it would be too hard to leave my baby.” But I never planned to go back to that toxic environment.
It was, it’s a horrible situation to be in, because you’ve just had your second child, you need the income. So I had been doing freelance writing on the side. So I had a few projects here and there from actually a friend is also a writer. There was some projects she didn’t have time to finish that I was able to do. So I did that on the side, with a newborn, and I remember holding her nursing her one arm and trying to write things on my phone with the other. And I did apply to some full time positions, but I was traumatized by that last job and I just, the thought of trusting, well the last job and then the job that wasn’t, I just didn’t trust that there was going to be a situation where I would be treated like a human being that had a family and a family that, you know, I wanted to see from time to time.
So I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a long time and then finally figured out. I got to figure out how to make this writing work for me full time. I started off years before as a blogger, and decided that I would turn that focus to blog and do content to support business owners. And that’s what I do now.
I mean, we’re still recovering from that hit that we took from me not having a job essentially for almost a full year, but I was able to have health care benefits. We were able to have a roof over our head because my husband knew that this was taking such a toll on me that I couldn’t continue to work and that I needed to figure out how I could take care of myself as well as our children and figure out how to bring in income.
WHITFIELD: So when you look back on this situation, is there anything that you would have done differently? And kind of what’s your message that you want to share with women, particularly Black women, who are dealing with concerns about this, you know, whether they’re pregnant now or planning to become pregnant?
BRANDYN: So when I look back, I think the one regret I have is that I didn’t even tell people close to me, in my inner circle, what was happening, because it was so painful. And when I ultimately did, after the fact, I found out that unfortunately, several of those women had endured similar experiences. So I think just a component of support would have been helpful and I think me voicing what was happening, and I guess it would have just been over social media, could have potentially helped some other women who might have been going through something similar, even sharing the fact that I worked with Women’s Law Project, and though it didn’t turn out great, they helped me to navigate things a little bit, well, a lot bit, and to not have to worry about a legal fee on top of everything else.
I do wish that something could have happened to that company. But I know myself and I knew that after I felt better, after Riley was born, that I would figure out how to advocate for other women in some way. So I’m more vocal and talking about my story now.
I have a state senator who is a huge proponent of women, and I’ve met with her to talk about Pennsylvania’s lack of a pregnancy anti-discrimination act and she was very concerned to hear that and to hear my story. She will be and has been exploring avenues in Harrisburg to try to get some help for women in the state because as awful as my situation was, I was able to get back on my feet financially and a lot of women don’t have that option. If you’re in a factory job or a minimum wage job, if you’re pushed out of your job you are ruined financially.
Those would be my takeaways, for women to know that they’re not alone, that there are resources. If, you know, attorneys cost a ton, very few of us can afford them. There are organizations who will help you navigate this. And above all, your health is more important than your job.
Advocate for yourself, even if it’s scary, protect yourself and that baby. Because as you said, even with all that we deal with, our risks are so much higher than white women in having our babies. Just advocate for yourself as much as you can and get as much support as you can.
WHITFIELD: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining us and sharing your story and we do hope that people listening will understand, you know, the challenges, and be aware of what their rights are. So thank you so much for joining us.
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Again, that was our guest today, Brandyn, a mom of two, sharing her story. We thank you, Brandyn, for having the courage to speak your truth. And we honestly just wish you and your family well going forward.
That’s our show today, which was hosted and produced by me, journalist Chandra Thomas Whitfield, and edited by Kristin Aldridge and House of Pod.
Our music is Convoy Lines by Blue Dot Sessions.
In The Gap was created with the support of the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting in In These Times magazine, which has been covering issues of equity and social justice since 1976.
To learn more about In The Gap and the pay gap for Black women, go to www.inthesetimes.com/inthegap.
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