The Letter of Sex Discrimination Laws Versus Reality

Pregnant women and mothers still face discrimination in the workplace.

Oct. 8, 2007 — -- Bloomberg LP, the world's largest financial news and data provider, is the latest corporation to be slapped with accusations of sexual discrimination, part of what experts told ABC News is a coming tidal wave of such complaints as more women continue their ascent in the workplace.

In the suits filed last week by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, plaintiffs Tanys Lancaster, 38, Jill Patricot, 35, and Janet Loures, 41, allege they were discriminated against because they were pregnant or on maternity leave.

In the court documents obtained by, the EEOC claims the women were not stripped of responsibility, demoted or denied compensation during or after their maternity leaves.

The women also allege that they were often told things like, "You are not committed" and "You do not want to be here" during and following their pregnancies, according to the court filings.

With women making up approximately 46 percent of the work force in America, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more and more companies may be forced to decide how flexible they are willing to be with employees' schedules – particularly those of expectant or new mothers.

Sex discrimination laws vary by state, but two federal laws govern much of the litigation surrounding claims like the EEOC's. Title VII, which is part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibits discrimination in the workplace on the basis of gender, and the Family and Medical Leave Act permits employees to take unpaid leaves if they need to take care of a medical condition or an ailing family member. Upon return, employees are guaranteed their old positions or one of equal stature.

Despite Laws, Discrimination Still Happens

"Many companies have indeed come a long way to develop solid formal and informal policies that support the needs of working parents, both men and women," said Tory Johnson, ABC's "Good Morning America's" workplace contributor. "But even when policies exist, they're only as good as a manager's willingness to implement and adhere to them."

While laws on the books govern employment practices, what goes on behind the scenes is often the root of the problem when it comes to sex and pregnancy discrimination.

Some companies hesitate to hire and retain pregnant women under the assumption that starting a family will take time away from the job at hand, according to gender discrimination experts.

"Leaders of companies make assumptions as to what it means to be pregnant, and that is a form of subtle discrimination," said Dr. Diane Shrier, clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School. "The bias continues despite the law. ... We all grow up with certain biases and expectations that are gender-based discrimination. The law is important and the workplace requirements and educating people is important but what really makes the difference is the people at the top."

Lawyers who defend employers in cases much like the one Bloomberg LP faces told that depending on the particular job description, employers have a certain amount of room to squeeze employees out or exclude candidates from a position.

"Employers would have to show that because of your pregnancy you wouldn't be able to satisfy the essential functions of the job," said Salvatore Gangemi, a New York City employment lawyer who has represented both employers and employees in discrimination cases. "This applies to the job that someone already has and one they may want to get hired for."

But if employers can show that continuing to employ a certain person for a job would be an "undue hardship" for the corporation, said Gangemi, the rules change a bit. The realities of being pregnant or a mother may mean one day leaving work early for a child's doctor's appointment or wanting to be home before the children go to bed.

"Law firms may say, 'What do you mean you want to leave at six o'clock? There are associates who need to follow up with you at eight o'clock on a regular basis,' and that's not going to work," said Gangemi. "It's an essential function of the job, and if there is no way around there – if they can't work out a situation where it's acceptable to the law firm if she comes in early, then they could just say, 'Sorry, this isn't going to work."

Flexibility in the Workplace

"Every day more and more companies develop both formal and informal policies to help accommodate" employees with care giving responsibilities outside of work, "not necessarily because it's the generous thing to do or the kind thing to do, but often because it's best for business. It retains loyalty keeps them happy and productive and at the end of the day, its best for business," said Johnson, who is also the CEO of Women for Hire.

For Chicagoan Sara Fisher, when she told her boss at Edelman, a public relations firm, that she was pregnant, the company was willing to tailor a work schedule around her changing lifestyle rather than let her leave the firm.

After she gave birth to her son, "I was supposed to come back after 12 weeks, but my boss let me take another month off," said Fisher, who writes about balancing motherhood and career on her blog, "Self Made Mom" and the "Chicago Moms Blog." "So I came back after four months, eased into projects and now I'm managing one of the largest accounts. I said I'd work three days a week or I wouldn't come back at all."

"The way I thought about it was I can either lose Sara or I can have somebody who is a fantastic employee for a few days a week," said Christopher Hannegan, who was Fisher's former boss at Edelman. "We needed to do what we could to make a flexible work arrangement."

Bloomberg LP, which is majority owned by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has denied the allegations in the sex discrimination complaint, saying they are without merit.

Bloomberg, a possible third-party candidate for president, suggested Thursday that his company is singled out because he is so well known.

"What's happening is, because I am so visible, it's obviously a target," he told The Associated Press. He said the accused should defend themselves when there is no wrongdoing, but that sometimes a settlement makes sense because "nuisance suits" drain away time and money.