On Monday, a conservative media outlet published a story poking holes in an anecdote Sen. Elizabeth Warren often shares on the campaign trail: that in 1971, she was fired from her teaching position after becoming pregnant. You can quibble if you want to about the media coverage of this story (we certainly are: here’s a good one, and another), but within hours, thousands of women began sharing their own experiences of pregnancy and maternal discrimination.
We started swapping stories. And within about 90 seconds, came up with no fewer than five women — all our contemporaries — who had experienced pregnancy or maternal discrimination in the workplace. There was the friend who learned her position had been offered to someone else (from her postpartum hospital bed, no less); the friend who was fired two weeks before returning from maternity leave; the friend who had been sidelined to a lesser role in her company after revealing her pregnancy; the friend who had been passed over for a promotion after the birth of her first child.
Discriminating against a woman for being pregnant or a mother is illegal, and has been since the 1970s. But clearly, that’s not stopped the practice. Katherine Goldstein, a Cog contributor and host of The Double Shift podcast (whose submission is featured below), wrote a wildly popular piece for the New York Times last year about the anti-mom bias at work. She argued that the “bias against mothers is a systemic problem beyond a few bad bosses.” Indeed, research shows that mothers are consistently viewed as less competent and less committed, they’re also paid less than their male (father) counterparts and women without children.
The prevalence of these stories in our own networks told us that many, many other women probably had similar stories. So, instead of going after a single personal essay — as we often do on cultural flashpoints like this — we decided to ask all of you. We posted call-outs on social media and sent notes to friends, acquaintances and contributors. In less than 24 hours, we received dozens of notes and messages. Some of the stories below are polished, others are more stream of consciousness; several happened in the same era as Warren's experience in 1971, but plenty of others are from the present day. All of them speak to an experience that is far too common. Many of our authors have requested anonymity and we have granted it to them.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t cop to the personal stake we both have in this story: your Cog editors are working moms of young children. Hillary Frank, who wrote and created “Longest Shortest Time” podcast, wrote that motherhood is the “biggest, most complex topic” she’s ever reported on, and yet “it has been treated as small, niche and unimportant.” Well, not by us.
Thank you for joining this conversation.
Eileen McNamara, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist
It was 1985, 15 years after Elizabeth Warren lost a teaching job because of her pregnancy, when I learned that my husband and I were expecting our first child. By then, the law had changed but attitudes had not.
I was a Congressional correspondent for The Boston Globe, working long hours on Capitol Hill and commuting home to Boston on my own dime every few weekends to see my husband, a sportswriter who covered the Celtics for The Hartford Courant. Like Warren, I waited as long as I could to share the news with my old-school bureau chief. He had given me stellar performance reviews during my two years in Washington but he had also told me to pull myself up by my pantyhose when I questioned why the paper was paying the commuting expenses of a male colleague whose family was still living in Boston. (Answer: he had a child whose school year could not be disrupted.)
My boss skipped the congratulations. "You should have told me you planned to have kids,” he fumed. “I knew you weren’t serious about this job when you left your husband in Boston."
The irony was not lost on me. His first wife and children had remained behind in Boston when he did his first stint in D.C. during the Kennedy Administration.
Ellen Meara, professor, Geisel School Of Medicine at Dartmouth
In an era of #MeToo and stories that suggest Elizabeth Warren’s unfortunate dismissal in 1971 is still a threat for new mothers, my vulnerability as a pregnant faculty member in 2001 seems quaint. A 2019 survey suggests women in economics, my field, still feel vulnerable; 36% of female faculty with dependents reported that they have faced discrimination around promotion. In spite of these dismal reminders, progress in academia is visible. Unlike Elizabeth Warren, I knew I would have a job when I returned from maternity leave. For me, a wave of women faculty giving birth and policies that address work and motherhood helped.
As the only mother on faculty in 2001, I felt uncertain of many things. However, the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act would guarantee me 12 weeks to navigate the transition to motherhood before adding work back to the mix, no matter what other policies my institution chose to implement. As a brand new mother back at work, I remember my embarrassment when a male colleague knocked on my office door just as I was fumbling with a breast pump and feeling exposed.
A decade later, a little-publicized provision of the Affordable Care Act requires lactation rooms in workplaces, a move that affords privacy and normalizes motherhood in professional settings. But perhaps most important, soon after I became a parent, several other faculty in my department gave birth. Motherhood went from a rare oddity to commonplace. Over a decade of pregnancies and beyond, we shared support, and a now legendary red maternity dress as each one of us rose to the rank of tenured full professor. Sadly, this is not yet the norm in academia, but as faculty mothers grow in number, our institutions will be forced to catch up.
Katherine Goldstein, journalist and creator/host of The Double Shift podcast, about a new generation of working mothers
Nothing about Elizabeth Warren's story surprises me. This is the world of being passed over for promotions because we have a baby at home, new opportunities drying up after a pregnancy is announced, positions "eliminated" while we're on maternity leave, and being systemically paid less than both fathers, who get a 6% pay bump on average for having kids, and childless women.
I often imagine who'd be leading companies, making decisions, elected to office and running the world if mothers weren't forced to overcome so many obstacles just to do our jobs and stay in the workforce.
While there are laws to protect us, and people are using them (pregnancy discrimination claims are up 315% in the last decade and Family responsibilities discrimination (FRD) lawsuits have increased 269% during the same period) lawsuits are the tip of the iceberg. When I published The Open Secret of Anti-mom bias at Work in the NYTimes last year, my inbox was flooded with mothers sharing their own stories of bias and discrimination, a majority of them never took any kind of legal action. Mostly, they felt ashamed, that what happened to them was their fault, and they felt very alone. Well, they are not alone. And the fact that Warren's story is making discrimination against mothers a national topic of conversation is just one step in helping this stark reality come out of the shadows.
In 1990, I was working for a consulting company in Boston. As the project was nearing a close, I discovered that I was pregnant. I called a meeting with the male owner of the company and a female manager. I let them know my news as a heads up. The owner immediately pulled me off the project, stating that he couldn’t have someone “emotional” working on the project. I had no morning sickness, or missed work, or emotional meltdowns. I was perfectly fine. When I called the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, I was told I had no case. I had not been fired — just humiliated and removed from the work I was doing, as a direct result of being pregnant. I ended up leaving the company and doing temp work until my daughter was born. The experience completely sidetracked my career. -- N.M.
In 1980, I started working as a lawyer in a medium-sized plaintiff's personal injury firm. I was one of two women in a firm of about 15. The other woman was married but didn't intend to have kids. In 1984, I got married. In 1986, I had my first daughter. The patriarch of the firm let me have a 6-month (unpaid) maternity leave. When I came back, he agreed to me having Fridays off and soon after, the firm made me a 4/5 partner on that basis. I kept my Fridays with my daughter. Gold.
But then I dared to have a second child in 1990. And I think the patriarch — and the other partners — became concerned about the generous precedent they were setting. It wasn't because of performance issues — the amount of money I was bringing in at the time surpassed many of my male colleagues who were working five days a week. They again gave me the 6-month (unpaid) maternity leave. But while I was on leave, a senior partner wrote to me and said that either I had to come back full time or they would take away my partnership. I had no intention of giving up my Fridays as a mom, so I gave up my partnership.
But then, I went to a woman lawyer at what I considered the "coolest" law firm in Boston — eight partners total, four women, four men. I went to her ostensibly to find out if I had a case, even though I knew I didn't. You don't have a right to a 4/5 partnership. But when I was told that I was out of luck and didn't have a case, I said that what I'd really like was to land on my feet with them. She said, "you would?" And I did! I joined as a partner and kept my Fridays until my youngest went to kindergarten. -- C.S.
My boss skipped the congratulations. “You should have told me you planned to have kids,” he fumed.-- Eileen McNamara, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist
This topic really chaps my ass ... if I wasn't so busy being maternal, I think I could write a novel about how hard it was to be pregnant and a mother on Capitol Hill. Or, hell, how hard it was to be a nursing mother. Harder than giving birth, that's for sure.
I saved my rocking chair so I can donate it to the Longworth Nursing Room — which is really just any room available at the nurse's office — because it had all the warmth of the House floor. You were actually watching the votes on the floor, while trying to produce. Certainly not a system that was in any way set up in favor of the mom … to the womanizing Congressmen go all the spoils.
I will now sit at home and stew about this. -- Anonymous
Thanks for doing this story. Warren's account is absolutely credible. In 2005, I was interviewing for a teaching job. It was a good interview up until the point the female department head said, “You’re in your mid-20s and I see a wedding ring on your finger. Are you planning on having children any time soon? We’ve had several maternity leaves recently, and it’s really thrown some wrenches in the works.” I stammered out something about not being sure I wanted children and that we had many more years to decide. I didn’t end up having my first child until 2013, and my second in 2017. -- E.A.
Looking for jobs while pregnant was a challenge I wasn’t expecting or prepared to face in my late 30s. After having moved across the country, leaving behind a job/career I was extremely passionate about, I was full of insecurities about the amount of change I was facing. I was already a newlywed in a new city looking for a new job.
Networking and interviewing was easy during the beginning of my pregnancy. It wasn’t until I was five months along, and on a third interview with a job I wanted, that I truly understood what was at stake. I agonized over whether or not to reveal my pregnancy with potential employers and decided to hide it as long as possible. As a normally transparent person, I felt dishonest and concerned about starting off a new career this way. However, everywhere I turned, the evidence supported the more discreet path. — A.G.
I was 19 and had just been hired at my first “real” job. I was to be a dental assistant, and the practice opted to train rather than hire someone who had graduated from a program. I was thrilled at the opportunity to have on-the-job training and a career path at that age. I was called into the head dentist’s office on my first day to fill out the usual forms. In addition, there was a document I was made to sign stating that being noticeably pregnant was cause for immediate termination. Being young, and not knowing any better, I signed. If this happened today, I would bring the paperwork to a lawyer. This was 2002/2003 in Massachusetts. — J.W.
In early 2014, I was offered a leadership position at an arts organization. The board had displayed great enthusiasm about bringing me on, and the feeling was mutual: In advance of the start date, I donated two months of evenings and weekends assisting with the transition. Then, at the end of my first trimester, I announced my pregnancy.
I was summoned to a closed-door meeting and barraged with questions. “Why didn’t you tell us sooner that you were pregnant?” “Who will take care of the baby while you work?” and “We’ll have to think about this and get back to you.”
My heart sank. Based on this job offer, my husband and I had already crafted plans for our future and for the new chapter of parenthood. We had no idea how easily our plans could collapse — and how rapidly the board’s enthusiasm could fade — with the words: “We’re having a baby.”
In the weeks that followed, I was accused of being difficult when I expressed discomfort with a “flexibility” clause that was added to my contract. While they stopped short of blatantly reneging their offer, it became very obvious that the board did not want to work with me. I did what I felt I had to do for my own mental health and the health of my baby: I declined the position. The board subsequently changed the role slightly, hired a man, and moved on.
For me and my family, the financial, emotional and physical repercussions of that experience were significant. How I wish I had realized then that the actions of this board constituted pregnancy harassment and discrimination. I can’t go back in time and pursue legal action, but I can share the information I wish I had known then:
- Announce your pregnancy to your employer whenever you choose. Follow up in writing. Create a paper trail and keep a detailed log of all conversations thereafter.
- Know your company’s policies, as well as your state-level protections. Read the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978.
- If you experience discrimination, you must act quickly.
- Finding a lawyer can seem daunting. Be persistent.
I held an administrative position at a university. I disclosed my pregnancy early to my supervisor who was nothing but supportive. He even allotted my department extra funds for interns and assistants to help with the more physical aspects of my job.
The department chair, however, disagreed with my supervisor and redistributed those funds. She told me that the job that I had agreed to required I be able to lift over 30 pounds and if I was unable to do so, then I should take an (unpaid) medical leave.
The very next week, she ordered me to complete a very physical task, then instructed my assistants to work elsewhere. I stayed on longer than I should have. It was moot, however, because I had a miscarriage at 14 weeks. I left my job two weeks after the loss. The department chair never once acknowledged my leaving or said goodbye. — A.
I often imagine who'd be leading companies, making decisions, elected to office and running the world if mothers weren't forced to overcome so many obstacles just to do our jobs and stay in the workforce.-- Katherine Goldstein. creator and host of The Double Shift Podcast
In 2007, I was working for a small Boston-based, woman-owned company. I had worked there for three years as the office manager.
I was pregnant with my first child and told my boss that I planned to come back after my (unpaid) maternity leave. When I was six months pregnant, she called me to come in early on a Monday. She and two other people fired me and tried to get me to sign a termination letter agreeing to just two weeks severance and to not apply for unemployment. I refused to sign. They took my keys, let me pack my personal belongings and escorted me out.
Even typing this out makes my heart race and brings back the trauma of that morning and the ensuing weeks, when I went on job interviews as a visibly pregnant person, where people practically laughed in my face when they met me for an interview.
I got a lawyer and we went through the Mass Commission Against Discrimination for pregnancy discrimination. The mediation judge ruled in my favor. — P.L.
I went out to lunch with my supervisor about a month into my pregnancy and had to rush to the bathroom to throw up after my first bite. She asked if I was pregnant, I said yes. We had a friendly talk about her past pregnancy, and I thought that was the end of it. Turns out she told our boss right away, because of concerns about how the workload would be affected when I left to have the baby. He took me into a private meeting room and asked if there was anything I wanted to tell him. I had to clue him in, even though I had hoped to wait until I was showing. He forced me to make a decision at that time on when I would leave them, and ultimately I gave my resignation. It didn’t occur to me until years later how badly I had been betrayed by my supervisor. -- B.O.
I got married at 33 years old in 1995. I asked my employer if they were ever going to change their maternity leave policy (unpaid FMLA) and I was told: “Well, if your husband made a better living, then maybe you wouldn’t have to worry about that. So, no.”
In 2004, I gave birth to twins at almost 43. There was still no paid maternity leave in place. I did manage to convince them to pay me, but only on the condition that I didn’t share the information with my coworkers. -- S.A.
I interviewed for a job at an OBGYN office. A week later I discovered I was pregnant. They called to offer me the position, I accepted and told them my news. She told me she would call me back. She claims she had to call and make sure there wasn't a "liability issue." We then discussed start dates.
Long story short, I was barely trained and couldn't get anyone to teach me or help when I had questions. The staff, especially the doctor herself, was very cold to me.
I was supposed to have a 45-day review to discuss where I could improve. That meeting was held on my 60th day and was basically her telling me what she didn't like about me. Not very helpful. I was let go on my 90th day of the probation period (that hadn't been mentioned until my first day). I was seven months pregnant.
It has been my belief from the start that she didn't want to hire me, called her attorney to find out, and begrudgingly did, knowing full well I would be let go ASAP, which is why they didn't invest in training me. — K.M.
When I was ready to go on maternity leave from my job, my boss told me to enjoy my vacation. Seriously.-- K.D.
My mom was the first female editor at a local TV newsroom in 1994, when she got pregnant with me. When she came back from a few weeks of pregnancy leave, she found they had given up her editing bay and that she was now a secretary. She left that job and shortly after that line of business altogether. — L.L.
In the mid-'70s, I was a young, newly-single mother with a preschool child, and considered myself very fortunate to be hired to a library assistant job at a university library. I had worked there about six weeks — with an initial, glowing job evaluation by my immediate supervisor at the one-month mark — when my daughter's daycare situation had to change.
At that time, university-sponsored daycare, such as it was, cost more per month than my gross salary. With the help of a terrific social worker, I found an affordable spot for her about a mile from my workplace. I asked my immediate supervisor for permission to come to work an hour later on her first day of the new daycare, and he agreed. When I arrived at work that day, the library director, a woman I had met only twice, called me into her office and asked if it were true I had a child because she hadn't known. Of course, I told her the truth, and she fired me immediately, telling me that she predicted "a pattern of absence" and "sub-standard work" would follow because I had a young child.
The director called an all-staff meeting to forbid anyone to speak with me, and denied me a copy of the initial evaluation. A friend who worked for the Boston Legal Assistance Project at the time went to court on my behalf and argued a sex-plus discrimination claim (because of my status as a mother), secured a restraining order of 10 days against the university. We lost the case for a preliminary injunction to keep me in my job, a decision made by a judge who was an alum of the same university, and argued on the university’s behalf by the General Counsel and his team.
My lawyer filed a simultaneous complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which months later found probable cause in my favor. The university appealed the decision. By then I had found another, and much better, job. Forty-five years later, I'm a professor at a senior level and see the same problems of safe and affordable day care and support for mothers in the workplace persist. -- R.R.
When I was ready to go on maternity leave from my job, my boss told me to enjoy my vacation. Seriously. — K.D.
I was in my first year as executive director of a nonprofit in Boston. On an executive coaching call with someone who was part of the organization, my coach (a male) made an offhand comment about “I know you’re married and don’t have kids yet, but you’re going to want to be ED for at least two years before you tell your board you’re taking a maternity leave.” I was newly pregnant but in my first trimester and hadn’t shared the news yet. I was already nervous about telling my board and staff I would be taking leave, and this made me both nervous and also furious. Once it was appropriate to share my news, I made sure to ask this coach how he would feel if his daughter (also a professional woman early in her career) had received this kind of “advice.”
If we want women in leadership, we have to support their decisions, even when it is “inconvenient” to the company or organization. Too often, I hear jokes from “well-intentioned” leaders (even female leaders) about what a hardship employees' family leaves are. I also believe it is paramount for organizations to actually staff up during a leave rather than just distribute the work across other employees — this dynamic compounds the feeling of being a burden to the organization when you take a leave, and if you are in leadership, can actually cripple the organization. — L.M.
Even typing this out makes my heart race and brings back the trauma of that morning and the ensuing weeks when I went on job interviews as a visibly pregnant person ...-- P.L.
I remember when I was a pregnant medical resident, I was feeling sorry for myself, wishing I lived in a more progressive country where women get paid maternity leave without a whole lot of fuss. (Those countries also have lower birth rates and fewer teen pregnancies and social programs that help families in meaningful ways — but that's a whole different topic, and I digress.)
Anyway, I was complaining about how I had to use up all my vacation days and all my designated study days and still not finish residency on time, to get a meager 12 weeks of unpaid time off ... and I was complaining to a woman (without kids and with no intention of having kids), and she was not at all friendly to my cause. She basically told me that she didn't think women should get any time off because it's not fair to the women who don't have babies — they end up doing all the work for us, etc., etc. I was stunned silent. And ended up walking away feeling somewhat ashamed, even though she was wrong.
I was shocked that I met resistance from someone I expected to be a friendly ear — a highly educated liberal woman of child-bearing age. But not child-bearing — so she felt that it was not at all fair to let women get special treatment just for growing a human. Seriously?! It's not just conservative men that we are up against. It's the whole system. — C.S.
If we want women in leadership, we have to support their decisions even when it is “inconvenient” to the company or organization.-- L.M.
A senior partner at my firm, a woman, was outraged that I took vacation in the same year that I was giving birth and would be going on maternity leave. — S.K.
I was working as a cookbook editor. I was due in April and reviews were in March. After the most challenging year in my career, I received a scathing review and wasn’t given a raise for the first time in my four years there. They piled work on me up until the last day, never acknowledging my due date, which fell well before many of the assigned deadlines. I was offered no assurance that there was a plan in place for those projects when I was out. I worked up until the day before I was induced, scrambling to finish everything I could. When I left on that last day, only two of my colleagues turned from their desks to wish me well. (I worked in an almost all-female department) I quit at the end of my leave, as the thought of returning to that cold environment was like a dark cloud over my first three months as a mom. — Anonymous
I don’t have a personal story because I quit my job and moved to the suburbs when I was pregnant. In those days, it was assumed that if your husband made enough money, your job was to stay home with the kids.
After a few years of being home, I went to law school, and later taught women and the law classes. If Elizabeth Warren had been allowed to continue teaching, she would have been in a very rare school indeed. -- C.A.
If I wasn't so busy being maternal I think I could write a novel about how hard it was to be pregnant and a mother on Capitol Hill. Or, hell, how hard it was to be a NURSING mother. Harder than giving birth. That's for sure.-- Anonymous
In 1978, I was working as a probation officer. I had been in my job for almost five years before I went on maternity leave for the birth of our son. (I had been promoted to a senior level after working for three years and I was eligible for promotion to a principal level after working for five years.) When I returned to work, and had another six months under my belt, I approached my supervisor about my applying for the principal level. He told me that although my time with the county now totaled more than five years, he needed to see how I performed on the job with a child at home. — N.H.
When I was 30 years old, I covered the New England territory for a company based in Tennessee. When I married a man who lived in New Hampshire, I made a detailed pitch to my employer — allowing me to live in New Hampshire, work my New England territory, but go back to my Tennessee office on a monthly basis. They approved and It worked splendidly for over a year.
I regularly won awards for the job I was doing. Then I became pregnant and gave birth. Within just a couple weeks of giving birth, the company decided to “return my job position to Tennessee.” With a 3-week-old baby, I was told that my husband and I would have to pick up and move to Tennessee if I wanted to keep my job. I chose to leave the company instead.
That decision was clearly made while I was pregnant. The company was willing to “trust“ me to work remotely until I became pregnant. At that point, they felt that a mother with a baby was no longer capable of that level of professional trust. -- M.A.L.
Editors' note: Unless a writer gave us explicit permission to use her full name and affiliation, or has published with Cognoscenti previously, we standardized attributions to the first and last name initial only, veering on the side of caution to protect contributors' privacy.