A core biographical element of Elizabeth Warren’s stump speech — that in the 1970s she lost a job as a public school teacher when her pregnancy became apparent — recently came in for scrutiny after a conservative website, the Washington Free Beacon, went hunting through 1971 New Jersey school board records.
Never mind that the records don’t contradict Warren’s story, or that it took place years before the national Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, or that other teachers at her school told CBS that there was a “rule” that pregnant teachers had to leave once they started to show. The doubts raised about this story create a cloud of dishonesty around Warren, just as the Ukraine affair stirs up a murk of corruption around Joe Biden. That’s the way politics works in 2019: Mud doesn’t have to be real to stick to you.
But the mudslinging at Warren’s early-career story of pregnancy discrimination is particularly pernicious, because it besmirches not only her, but also all working women. More than 80% of women become mothers, and most have jobs when they find out they’re pregnant. Nonmothers may be seen by employers as “potential mothers” — hence the how-are-we-still-discussing-this advice that a woman should remove her wedding ring before a job interview.
The accusation that Warren lied will gain traction because many people believe a bigger lie — that claims of pregnancy discrimination and sexism are exaggerated.
But to this day, significant bias against mothers and mothers-to-be persists. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Joan C. Williams and Amy Cuddy observe that although people generally understand that explicitly stating their biases at work is a bad idea, “many remain surprisingly open about their bias against one subset of employees: caregivers, particularly working mothers.”
A study led by Shelley Correll at Cornell and published in 2007 found that mothers were expected to be more credentialed and committed than other employees, but offered less money: $11,000 less than childless women and $13,000 less than fathers. Mothers were half as likely to be hired as equally qualified nonmothers were.
These findings align with decades of research finding that mothers and visibly pregnant women are seen as less competent than childless women, while fathers pay no such price. The gender pay gap widens so much with a first child — starting in the year before the birth — that many researchers have concluded it’s essentially a motherhood penalty.
Pregnant women often find that discrimination begins as soon as they disclose their pregnancy, or, as in Warren’s case, as soon as they can no longer hide it. Erin Murphy’s boss at Glencore told her during a performance review that she was “one of the hardest working” people on the team, as well as “diligent, conscientious and determined.” After she got pregnant with her first child, he told her it would “definitely plateau” her career, something he seems to have personally ensured.
For lower-earning women, announcing a pregnancy can lead not to a plateau, but a cliff. The Center for Work Life Law issued a report in 2011 — 40 years after Warren lost that job — finding that such women can still lose their jobs with shocking speed. A receptionist at a day spa was fired within hours of sharing the happy news; a telephone operator the following day; a restaurant worker within two weeks. According to complaints filed, the women’s managers justified these actions by saying the pregnant women were “too moody” or “less agile,” explaining that they were coming up on a busy season or protesting that they couldn’t afford to offer even an unpaid leave. One boss simply blurted, “That’s not going to work.”
Bigger, better-lawyered companies tend to be savvier about how they go about this, stopping short of “firing,” but the results are the same. Rachel Mountis was an award-winning salesperson for Merck, and in 2009 was promoted for her stellar results. The next year, though, she became pregnant, and the company laid her off only weeks before her due date, calling it a downsizing. In 2017, pregnant Walmart warehouse employee Whitney Tomlinson said that after she asked for an unscheduled break and a bit of help with the heavy lifting, her supervisors pressured her to apply for unpaid leave, called her a “liability,” and then told her she couldn’t return to work until she gave birth. Try affording that on $15 an hour.
Opposition researchers want to neutralize Elizabeth Warren’s personal story precisely because it’s a powerful one. But what makes it powerful isn’t that it’s unusual. It’s that it’s so infuriatingly common.
Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review.