Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace

Pregnancy discrimination refers to the unfair treatment of female workers because of pregnancy, childbirth, or any related medical condition.

There are many cases of blatant discrimination against pregnant women because an employer doesn’t think she will be able to perform her job. However, pregnancy discrimination can also be subtle such as making one’s job redundant during maternity leave.

Pregnancy discrimination is a form of gender discrimination as only women can become pregnant. Women should not be deprived of workplace opportunities simply because they are pregnant or recently had a baby.

Motherhood penalty

The “motherhood penalty” refers to the downsides that working mothers face in the workplace. Studies show that mothers experience substantial disadvantages in the workplace in addition to those associated with gender.

In experiments conducted by Cornell University sociologists, it was found that while mothers were penalized for being a parent, men were not and they even sometimes benefited from it. Numerous studies (1,2) have shown that mothers start at a lower pay than their colleagues, receive worse job evaluations, and are promoted far less.

Pregnancy discrimination legislation

Pregnancy related discrimination in any phase of employment including interview, hiring, assignments, performance evaluation, training, promotions and demotions, rewards, and layoffs is prohibited by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) in the United States.

The law permits pregnant employees to work as long as they can fulfill their workplace duties. If an employee has been missing work as a result of pregnancy, her employer may not force her to remain on leave until child birth.

Discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers continues to be an issue in the workplace. In 2016 alone, The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the U.S. received nearly 3,500 pregnancy discrimination charges.

Under laws like the PDA and the Canadian Human Rights Act, a pregnant employee is entitled to receive reasonable accommodation from the employee.

What is reasonable accommodation?

Pregnant employees may require to make changes in the way they work because of pregnancy-related needs. An employer has a legal obligation to cater to those needs.

A reasonable accommodation refers to any change in the workplace to assist a pregnant employee to perform the essential functions of a job. Accommodations vary according to the needs of the pregnant employee. Each decision to accommodate must be taken on a case-by-case basis.

The employer is only obligated to provide reasonable accommodation when an employee has a real need and if it doesn’t cause the employer an “undue hardship.” Undue hardship refers to a significant difficulty or expense that make it hard for the employer to provide reasonable accommodation.

Types and examples of pregnancy discrimination

Close-up of belly of pregnant woman office worker

There are many forms of pregnancy discrimination. Here are four types of pregnancy discrimination that a pregnant woman or a woman with pregnancy related illness may face in the workplace.

Direct discrimination

Direct discrimination refers to the unfavorable treatment of female workers because of pregnancy or maternity such as firing or refusing to hire someone because of a pregnancy. It is unlawful for an employer to make such decisions based on assumptions that the employee will not be able to perform her duties because she is pregnant.

Although an employer may believe that they are only looking out for the employee, it is against the law to force an employee to take time off or reassign their job.

Example: Refusing to promote a pregnant employee because the employer assumes she will not be able to take on the additional duties.


Any frequent and pervasive conduct that interferes with a pregnant employee or a new mother’s performance in the workplace is harassment. This includes derogatory comments, insults, offensive jokes, physical assault, intrusive questioning, and threats.

Example: A pregnant employee’s supervisor repeatedly asking her who the baby daddy is.

Failure to provide reasonable accommodations

It is also discrimination when an employer fails to provide a pregnant employee or employee with pregnancy-related complications reasonable accommodations.


Employees who complain of pregnancy discrimination may be victimised because of it. Employers may also retaliate against an employee for supporting a pregnant colleague’s complaint of discrimination.

Example: A pregnant employee is fired as a consequence of filing a complaint after getting demoted.