When pregnancy is treated as a problem

Are you pregnant? Are you planning to get pregnant? Are you in a relationship?

I squirmed uncomfortably as my boss asked these questions to a finalist for a job opening. I'd identified the person as a promising journalist, but he wanted to do the final screening.

The questions he asked had little to do with her experience and much to do with the candidate's child-bearing plans. This incident happened more than a decade ago when I was in management for a different employer.

I would like to say that I stood up and interrupted the interrogation and said, "You can't ask those questions." But to my shame, I remained silent. I didn't want to lose my job.

Only a few months earlier, the same boss became infuriated when another woman announced her pregnancy shortly after she'd been hired.

He said he'd been "tricked" and "deceived" and that he wanted me to fire her. I wouldn't. (Interestingly enough, he could have fired her himself, but for some reason didn't.)

Instead, I spent nearly nine months being harangued daily by my supervisor about the woman's continued employment. It was a miserable experience. He was gestating a grudge.

Call me a Pollyanna, but until this experience it never occurred to me that some employers would retaliate against a worker for getting pregnant.

I grew up in a family business. When my parents learned someone was expecting, it was considered a matter to celebrate. Yes, there was the inconvenience of finding someone to fill in during a maternity leave. But it never would have crossed their minds to penalize someone.

A few days ago, I read about Becky Harmon, the coach for the WNBA team the Las Vegas Aces, being suspended for making inappropriate remarks about the pregnancy of one of her players, Dearica Hamby.

Hamby alleged the Aces "bullied, manipulated and discriminated against" her after she told the team she was pregnant.

"I was asked if I planned my pregnancy," she wrote of the Aces in her statement. "When I responded, 'no,' I was then told that I 'was not taking precautions to not get pregnant.'"

Here's a thought, it's nobody else's business whether a pregnancy is planned or not.

In fact, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 45% of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended.

In other words, walk into any preschool and about half of the kids you will see were an oops. Or just look in the mirror and remember your own parents were probably batting .500.

But unplanned doesn't necessarily mean unwanted or unloved.

One of the things that stands out about the Hamby story is that the abuse she allegedly endured came at the hands of another woman.

Her coach, Harmon, was a trailblazer in her own right. She was an Olympian, a professional basketball player, only the second female to be an assistant NBA coach and she is one of the most highly regarded coaches in the WNBA.

And yet, she apparently hassled another woman for getting pregnant.

Perhaps I should find this surprising. But when I was enduring abuse from my own boss for not firing a pregnant worker, a female editor kept chiming in, "I've seen pregnancy just ruin otherwise good reporters."

Her tone made one think she was describing a prize canine bred by the neighbors' mutt right before competing in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Every time she'd say it, I'd roll my eyes and wonder how someone could be that stupid.

Next month, a federal law goes into effect that requires employers with more than 15 employees to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers. Such workers could not be denied employment opportunities or retaliated against for requesting a reasonable accommodation.

My friend and Springfield native, former U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, helped spearhead that measure into law.

"Like many women, I have seen the impact that it can have on a career when an employer refuses to consider accommodations for a pregnancy," she said. "Years ago, when I was still early in my career, I was up for a promotion. At the time, I had two children at home.

"During my interview, I was asked if I had child care and if I planned to have more children. I replied that I had everything in my personal life in the right place.

"Despite having more experience, an excellent track record and having been with my employer longer, weeks later it was announced that I did not get the promotion. The person who did was single, with no children at home."

Bustos asked that I not identify the employer. That's understandable. No one wants to talk badly about a former employer. And that's why I, too, have held off on identifying the outfit where I had my bad experience.

But an interesting aspect of Bustos' situation was that it was a female supervisor who questioned her about whether she planned another pregnancy. In my case, the pressure to fire a pregnant worker came from a man.

Discrimination can come from all quarters.

And that is why I'm glad we will soon have a law protecting all pregnant workers..

Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at [email protected].

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder is a staff writer at Illinois Times.

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