Women Increasingly Discriminated Against for Caretaking Roles

by Mariya Strauss

If you’re a new parent, you don’t expect to play for the NBA. You may not be allowed to work there either. In October, the sports organization was hit with a class action lawsuit by account executive Brynn Cohn and two other women who reported that, once they had kids who needed them at home, their department changed their schedules.

Unable to find or afford childcare to cover their new evening work hours, the women say that by 2011 they were forced to quit. The $3 million discrimination suit exposes the NBA’s unwillingness to work with employees who have family responsibilities, said the lawyer for Cohn. "This lawsuit lays bare the open hostility to which women with young children are consistently subjected as NBA employees," lawyer David Sanford told AP reporters.

Such patterns are becoming more common as more and more women are entering or re-entering the workforce. As of 2011, women made up 47 percent of the US labor force. But that doesn't mean the needs of family members at home -- be they children or elder relatives -- are diminishing. In fact, 70.6% of mothers with children under 18 work. And 42 percent of workers have elder care responsibilities, according to the AARP. So workplaces are adjusting to the new reality by giving women flexible scheduling options and paid leave time they need in order to meet all their caregiving responsibilities, right?

Wrong. Women -- and men -- at all income levels report harassment, retaliation, and even outright firing by their employers once their caregiving responsibilities become known. Family responsibility discrimination (also called FRD or caregiver discrimination) is defined as "any sort of unfair or differential treatment of people who have caregiving responsibilities outside of work," said Robin Devaux, Managing Director of the Work Life Law Center at University of California-Hastings. Reported cases are on the rise: lawsuits filed by employees with family caregiving obligations have increased almost 400% in the past decade. The number of reports of pregnancy discrimination, a type of FRD in which employers treat pregnant workers differently from others, rose 35 percent over the past ten years.

The maltreatment has gotten so bad that the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) has called it a "significant problem" and held a series of public meetings to call attention to it. Courts have also been finding for the plaintiffs in recent cases where the discrimination takes more subtle forms. Work-life experts say women often report not being given promotions or plum assignments once they become mothers, or simply giving up on the job in response to being pressured about scheduling and pay. UC-Hastings law professor Joan C. Williams called it maternal wall bias in a recent article for the Harvard Business Review.

This pattern of employer hostility toward caregivers is not just for executives like the women involved in the NBA lawsuit: it extends to lower-wage workers, pregnant women, and men who care for children or elder relatives. A 2011 report entitled "Poor, Pregnant and Fired" from the Center for Work-Life Law at UC-Hastings highlighted 50 cases that reveal a disturbing trend of discrimination against low-wage workers based on their caregiving demands at home. And the nation’s largest private sector employer is not exempt from claims of FRD: the report also cited the famous class action gender bias lawsuit Dukes vs. Walmart that awarded plaintiffs more than $250 million.

Low-wage workers, defined by the report's authors as being in the bottom third of the income spectrum, pay a heavy price at work for having babies, or needing to take time off for child or elder care. Ironically, though, these workers caring for their loved ones at home are contributing greatly to the economy by volunteering: AARP estimated the 2009 monetary value of the time and efforts of those caring for elders at $450 billion. That figure doesn’t even begin to reflect the financial contribution of workers who care for children.

As report co-author Stephanie Bornstein wrote in 2011, employers' behavior included a range of abuses:

--employees encouraged to get abortions or asked about their birth control usage, or sexually harassed because of their roles as caregivers;

--employees being set up to fail, with unreasonable goals or tasks assigned to them, after caregiving responsibilities are discovered;

--low-wage men who care for children or elderly parents subjected to extreme gender stereotyping at work; and

--pregnant women of color denied access to accommodations regularly granted to their pregnant co-workers of a different race.

Employers should take stock of their treatment of employees with family responsibilities and do what they can to make sure they aren’t discriminating, said Devaux. “If you don't prevent this kind of discrimination,” she said, “A: you’re going to get sued, and B: you're going to have a lot of turnover. If people can't keep their jobs and keep up their caregiving responsibilities at the same time, they're not going to be able to stick around. The turnover is expensive, and you don't want a dissatisfied workforce, so it is definitely something to be taken seriously.”  Another reason to take it seriously: two thirds of FRD discrimination suits in federal courts are found in favor of the plaintiff, according to data collected by the Center for WorkLife Law. That’s twice as high as the rate for other types of discrimination lawsuits.

Devaux explained why putting an end to caregiver discrimination should become the standard for employers. “A big misperception is that people with caregiving responsibilities want some sort of special treatment,” she said, “and that's absolutely not what it is. It's just, treat them the same as you would treat anyone else.”

Image via torreldones on Flickr