Rutgers controversy highlights issue of mothers-to-be in workplace
By Kara Yorio
A group of NCAA women coaches gets on the phone each month and discusses strategies — but not about the perfect defense or the best way to recruit the nation’s top players. These women are all mothers — or want to be mothers one day. The Moms Who Coach Loop Group is a regular one-hour conference call organized to help these coaches share the best way to balance coaching and parenting.
“This is an issue that comes up all the time,” said Celia Slater, executive director of the NCAA Women’s Coaching Academy and co-director of the Alliance of Women Coaches. “I think it’s across any full-time career, I don’t think athletics is any different from a woman who has aspirations of being a corporate executive at Gatorade or IBM or Google. I think they have to think it out. They have to build a village to support them.”
The idea that a pregnant woman or a mother can’t be a committed and successful coach seems anachronistic. The discussion, according to Slater, is how to do it best in a sports world that demands a 24/7 commitment.
That culture is part of the controversy surrounding Rutgers’ new athletic director, Julie Hermann, who was seen in a 1994 video at an assistant coach’s wedding saying in a lighthearted tone, “I don’t want you to come back in February with any surprises, you know, the office and all, and it would be hard to have a baby in there.”
A couple of years later, assistant coach Ginger Hineline did get pregnant and was fired. She sued the University of Tennessee for pregnancy discrimination and a jury awarded her $150,000 in 1997.
After originally denying the existence of the video, Hermann later said she was only kidding when she made the comments. For Hineline and other women in her situation, it is no joke.
“If you’re saying that to somebody, there’s always the feeling that it’s half the way you feel,” said Bonnie Shapiro, president of the northern New Jersey chapter of the National Organization for Women. “That’s even true in a personal relationship with somebody if they say something like that; you don’t know how much credence to put into that. When it’s your boss, you really feel insecure. You don’t know what to do.”
The pregnancy discrimination issue has become ancillary to the bigger controversy surrounding Hermann — one that continued over the weekend with Rutgers canceling the appearance of Hermann at two campus events this week and the school’s general counsel, John Farmer Jr., expressing strong support for her in an opinion article in the Star-Ledger.
But the issue is not a side one to many women, more than 15 years after Hineline’s suit.
Pregnancy discrimination cases increased nationally from 3,977 in 1997 to 6,285 in 2008, a 58 percent jump, before falling off since the recession, to 5,797 in 2011, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“There may be more awareness and there’s obviously also more women in the workforce, and as the statistics have shown about families relying on women’s income more and more, it becomes more important that women maintain their job,” said Michelle Caiola, senior staff attorney for Legal Momentum, a legal defense and education fund dedicated to advancing the rights of all women and girls.
“They’re not just working for, as they used to say, the extra pin money,” she said.
More than 40 percent of U.S. households with children relied on the woman as the chief or only source of income in 2011, up from 11 percent in 1960, according to a Pew Research Center study of census data released recently.
“When they actually do get pregnant, they are more often working through their pregnancy and more often having to return to the workforce after giving birth. All of those circumstances are probably contributing to the instances of discrimination and therefore EEOC charges being filed,” Caiola said.
Anecdotally, subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination against pregnant women in the workforce continues as well, and many women are afraid to speak up about it.
“They’re paranoid, that’s part of the discrimination,” said Hope Lang, an employment law attorney in Oradell. “I see this all the time and there are a lot of misconceptions or distorted perceptions of women who become pregnant thinking they’re somehow going to be less efficient as workers or they may not return to work. As with all discrimination, it is the perception that is flawed.”
The laws are convoluted and court decisions inconsistent as the 35th anniversary approaches of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which was amended into the Civil Rights Act in 1978. Federal legislation called the Pregnancy Workers Fairness Act is pending. The policy protects small businesses by requiring employers to accommodate a worker only if they have a minimum of 15 employees and it wouldn’t be “an undue hardship,” according to Caiola.
In multiple cases around the country, pregnant women with temporary physical limitations were not given the same accommodations as non-pregnant employees with injuries. Instead, these women were forced onto unpaid medical leave.
Caiola represented a firefighter and an airline baggage claim worker in such cases. In May, Legal Momentum and a group of legal scholars filed a supporting brief asking the Supreme Court to review a Court of Appeals decision against a UPS employee who was not accommodated with a lighter workload, was forced onto unpaid leave and lost her medical benefits until she returned to work two months after her baby was born.
Other actions are not as overt.
“There is a ton of subtle discrimination of pregnant women just based on stereotypes of whether they’re going to continue to be a good and dedicated employee, based on the idea that they will increase the companies’ cost and sometimes just based on the gendered stereotypes about women (not belonging) in the workplace when they are pregnant or have a baby at home,” Caiola said. “There is still a ton of discrimination that’s going on but a lot of it is subtle not blanket policy.”
While physical limitations and fears are often cited by employers of pregnant women, it was never an issue for Pompton Lakes (N.J.) High School softball coach Karyn Hennessy when she became pregnant two years ago. While her husband worried about practices occasionally, she did not. She coached through her first trimester morning sickness and into her fifth month.
Hennessy received much support from her administration and players. She continued coaching while pregnant and returned after having her son.
“I work at a really great school, with a really supportive athletic director and administration and co-workers,” said Hennessy, whose husband is a basketball coach at the school. “I think I work in a special place so, to me, I was just more excited to let people know.”
Many aren’t as lucky. Some employers have complained about the number of times a pregnant woman goes to the bathroom, arguing it reduces her productivity. Others won’t allow pregnant women to get off their feet or eat or drink more often as is necessary.
“If you work in an office job, it doesn’t occur to you that that would ever be a problem,” Caoila said. “But if you work on a factory line or a construction site or even a cashier in a big retailer, it’s not always easy to get those accommodations and often there are rules about that — no sitting down, no eating on the job. There are employers that will not allow a pregnant woman to do that.”
The rise of women in boardrooms has not meant much to the average pregnant worker.
“The fact that there are women execs and there are women CEOs and the fact that there could in fact be a woman president doesn’t really have all that much of a reverberation down,” said Shapiro of the National Organization for Women.
Shapiro sees a lack of connection between the daily reality of most women and the country’s top female executives, such as Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who recently stirred a culture and gender debate with “Lean In,” her book about women and mothers in the workplace.
“They have day care because they demand it, they have it, they create it, they bring along their day care, they’re rich enough to have it,” Shapiro said, referring to Sandberg and other high-level female executives. “For most people, they don’t have day care, they don’t have child care, so many of them have a situation where they do have to take off from work for at least a couple of months, then go back maybe if they still have a job. Then they’re told still that they’re not that good a mother because you’re at your work.”
For many women, when to have children has become a professional decision rather than a personal one, according to Lang, the employment law attorney. These women worry that taking themselves out of the workforce — even briefly — early on would be irreversibly detrimental to employment opportunities.
“They’re trying to figure out how they can stay in coaching and have a family, if that’s what they choose to do, before they might even be married or have a partner,” said Slater of the NCAA Women’s Coaching Academy.