Over the summer, an anonymous memo by a Google employee on maternity leave made the rounds on an internal message board. In the post, which was eventually leaked to Motherboard, Chelsey Glasson explained that she would not be returning to Google after her leave was up, detailing allegations of pregnancy discrimination and retaliatory behavior. “I’m sharing this statement because I hope it informs needed change in how Google handles discrimination, harassment and retaliation,” she wrote.
Glasson, who has since disclosed her name, shared her first-person account exclusively with Fast Company to help raise awareness of the bias and discrimination faced by pregnant women, even in workplaces with generous leave policies. She has now filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), typically the first step toward pursuing a lawsuit alleging discrimination. After a preliminary investigation, the EEOC will issue a “right to sue” letter if Glasson’s case has legs and there are grounds for a discrimination claim. Hers is just one of many such claims: From 1997 to 2011, the EEOC and state employment agencies saw nearly a 50% increase in pregnancy discrimination complaints, well after the introduction of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978.
But there is a high bar for proving this sort of discrimination in a court of law. Most companies will argue there were sound reasons—unrelated to the pregnancy—for the alleged discrimination. To build a strong legal case, the plaintiff has to effectively isolate their pregnancy as the driving force behind their employer’s actions.
Bringing a pregnancy discrimination claim against a tech giant like Google, then, is no small task. Though the company has faced other discrimination suits—some of which have been settled—Glasson says many lawyers tried to warn her against taking on Google. And those willing to take the case seemed inclined to settle quickly. “I talked to several attorneys about my situation,” she says, “and the feedback that I got was: ‘Google’s going to eat you alive, and they’re going to use their vast resources to try to discredit you. Your whole life is going to be up for critique.'” (Google declined to comment for this article.)
In the meantime, Glasson, who was employed in Seattle at the time of the alleged discrimination, is working with Washington state senator Karen Keiser on legislation that extends the statute of limitations for reporting pregnancy discrimination. Right now, to file a complaint with the Washington State Human Rights Commission, you must do so within 180 days of when the discrimination took place. (Some states allow people up to 300 days to file a pregnancy discrimination complaint.) “While you’re pregnant and right after you’ve had a baby, you have a lot of other things on your plate,” Glasson says. “So that window of opportunity to fight pregnancy discrimination just goes by quickly.” Keiser will introduce the bill in early December for the 2020 legislative session.
Glasson’s story, which spans two pregnancies with diverging experiences at a single employer, illustrates that pregnancy discrimination is rarely a tidy narrative and can come from surprising places. These cases are often winding and complicated, in part because they are built on a series of slights that, together, indicate a pattern of unfair treatment. Glasson’s experience is no exception. Her account, shared over a series of interviews with supporting documentation, has been edited for space and clarity.
Have you experienced pregnancy discrimination in the workplace? Reach out on Twitter @pavsmo (DM for Signal) or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
March 2014-March 2018: “I was a really strong performer at the company”
I was at Google doing user research for a total of five and a half years. I was promoted several times. We go through this process called “calibration,” where we’re given a performance score. Two times I received a superb rating, which only the top [3%-5%] of Googlers receive.
I had my [first child] in July 2016, and I was still based out of Mountain View at that time. I decided, while I was on maternity leave, to move my family to Seattle. I started reporting to a new boss at Google, who is very influential in the research department. She was amazingly supportive in my coming back from leave, given some unique factors with my move. She even went so far as to let me work remotely for the first few weeks coming out of leave while we moved—and this is really unheard of at Google.
My boss really respects other high-performing individuals and elevates those folks. In part because of my strong performance, I got to a point where I was promoted into managing a team of six individuals. I had a great relationship with her, and we had a plan for my being promoted yet again [before I got pregnant].
February-April 2018: “My boss started making some really inappropriate comments”
There was a mom on my team who had two sets of twins during her time at Google, one set while she was on this team. She had four young children. I noticed that my boss started making some really inappropriate comments like, “I think she might be trying to get pregnant again, and she’s just really overly emotional when pregnant and hard to work with.” It started small and then very quickly progressed to [comments like]: “I think this person would be much better suited at a lower tier company. What can we do to encourage her to start exploring other options?” She very clearly was trying to get me to kick this person off the team.
I reached out to HR. Through those conversations with HR, it was disclosed that there was a record of people complaining about my boss. HR didn’t share details other than to say they [were] aware that she [was] doing and saying some inappropriate things and that there was ongoing coaching. They said not to worry about retaliation—that’s strongly discouraged at Google. But [they told me] that my comments might be shared directly with my boss.
June-August 2018: “Work became a war zone”
After that first conversation with HR, my boss’s behavior toward me drastically changed. It was so obvious given we had this beautiful relationship [before]. Work became a war zone. I remember feeling this overwhelming anxiety just walking in the door. Every single project I touched after that point, she vetoed. She [had] one-on-one conversations stating negative things about me to my peers and superiors. The ultimate blow was finding out she was actively interviewing people to replace me, despite our not having any conversations about my leaving the team.
While all of this is happening, I became pregnant. I shared [news of my pregnancy] with my boss, in part because my morning sickness was so bad. The more I [shared with HR and senior management], the worse the retaliation [from my boss] became. I was worried about how the stress was impacting my pregnancy. It became clear that I just needed to remove myself from the abusive environment.
July-September 2018: “I turned down an offer and stayed—but the retaliation continued”
I started interviewing for other jobs at Google, which is another stressor and like going through a formal interview process. I received a job offer similar in scope and responsibility. I shared with [senior management] and my boss’s manager that I planned to leave the team. They both immediately reached out and [told me they wanted me] to stay, [and that my boss was leaving the team] for reasons they couldn’t share.
So I turned down the offer and stayed, but the retaliation continued. A little over a month passed, and then my [boss’s manager] calls me into a meeting and tells me [my] boss is not leaving the team—and, by the way, “your boss is telling me that you’re not meeting expectations for your role.” He went through this list of really concerning points of feedback that I hadn’t heard before and felt unfair to me, and it became clear that I was not welcome on the team.
I was like, “I’m pregnant. I turned down a job offer because you told me that my boss was leaving and that I’m a valued team member. You put me in a really tough position.” He just pushed my concerns aside and said, “I bet that role that you were originally offered is still on the table.” But it wasn’t.
September-October 2018: “I’m clearly not being set up for success”
After that, I started the internal interview process all over again. I found an opportunity for a management role that was of lesser responsibility—managing fewer individuals. This is five months before I’m supposed to go on maternity leave. I give notice to my current team.
[My new boss and her boss] wrote this offer letter that said: “Given timing and future growth considerations, there are a few options to consider related to positioning and structure of Chelsey’s role. Plan 1: Chelsey [joins] as an [individual contributor] now and later manages, when [she] comes back from maternity leave. We prefer this option—[it] will be low stress for the team. Plan 2: [Chelsey joins] as a research lead [and manager]. We should be sensitive here—the team is very new and still forming, and this plan might rock the boat.” I knew that wasn’t okay, but I was so traumatized from where I was at and desperate to get out of that situation.
As I start on the new team, they introduce me as a manager. But my boss is pulling me aside saying [I shouldn’t] do anything that’s management-related. I’m clearly not being set up for success.
December 2018: “My boss was judging and discrediting my situation”
As that was happening, I was diagnosed with a complete placenta previa, which is a serious and unpredictable condition in which your placenta is covering your cervix. What typically happens is that at a certain point in your pregnancy, you start hemorrhaging, and you could really quickly bleed out and die. If you have a bleed, you’re usually hospitalized and put on bed rest.
I shared this with my boss: “Hey, I’ve been diagnosed with a complete placenta previa. I can’t travel because I have to stay close to a specific hospital. And I want you to know that if at any point I start bleeding, my leave might start right away, and I could be hospitalized.” This is where my boss started making inappropriate comments and discrediting my situation. In one meeting, she [basically said], “I just listened to an NPR segment that debunked the benefits of bed rest, and when I was pregnant, I bled a little bit and my doctor put me on bed rest. I ignored what my doctor said, and I actually gave one of the biggest presentations of my career the day before I delivered my son via C-section. And by the way—we’re not really certain that there will actually be a management role available for you upon returning from maternity leave.”
I hired an attorney who drafted what’s called a demand letter. I asked Google to help me transfer teams into a role of similar responsibility, conduct an investigation of my [previous] boss’s retaliation and her discrimination against a member of my team, and prevent my [previous] boss from having any say in my career trajectory at the company moving forward.
Google refused to comply with those demands. Google’s legal team came back and said they would work with me on a walk-away agreement—basically, that they would pay me to leave the company. I declined to move forward.
January-March 2019: “I was hospitalized for a total of three weeks before my daughter was born”
[Less than three months before my due date], I emailed my boss letting her know I was processing all the paperwork for leave and that I probably would not return to work. My doctor had encouraged me to take early leave due to “anxiety as acute reaction to exceptional stress.”
My boss emailed me a few hours later telling me that I’m not meeting expectations for my role. I started having bleeds [after I took leave] and was hospitalized for a total of three weeks before my daughter was born. The day I turned 37 weeks pregnant, I had another bleed, and [my daughter] was delivered.
It was one of the worst, most emotional, scary experiences I’ve been through. And when I should have been focused on myself and my baby, I [was] reaching out to HR and saying, “This is very clear and blatant discrimination that I’m experiencing.”
January-April 2019: “How can you make a claim that there’s no retaliation when you haven’t investigated?”
[While I was on leave], they finally did start to investigate a piece of my story on the second team, but it felt like a complete joke to me. There was this really awkward meeting scheduled between me and two investigators. I documented my experience along the way, so I shared it with them. They didn’t really ask any questions.
[It wasn’t until after my daughter was born] that they completed the investigation. They basically said, “Well, we talked to your boss about her comments about bed rest, and what we found is that she wasn’t trying to discourage you from listening to your doctors.” There were several meetings and offsites for managers that I was excluded from. [The investigators] said I wasn’t part of those because there was an administrative error, and I was accidentally left off the invite. This is a really small group of people, so I don’t know how they missed that a fellow manager wasn’t present. [They] also said my boss just did a really poor job of communicating the scope of my new role. Ultimately, they said [they] found no policy violations.
At the end of the conversation, they said [they didn’t want me] to be worried about retaliation, but of course my boss was aware that this investigation occurred. [They] talked to her. [They] recommended I take advantage of free counseling that Google provides if [I had] any concerns about [my] relationship with her.
[In various public statements,] Google has basically said, “We investigate every reported act of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.” And then they’ve also mentioned that in situations where an employee feels like a target, [they] provide support for them to find another home in the company. In my experience both of those statements feel completely false. In the situation with my original boss, for those months when she was retaliating, I was raising my hand over and over and over to my VP, to her boss, and to HR.
May 2019: “My team gave me a ‘needs improvement'”
We go through the performance review process twice a year at Google, and there was a performance round that closed [while I was on leave]. I had been out of the office the entire calendar year at this point, and in May, my team gave me a “needs improvement.” The score was based on my performance [over less than 10 weeks].
Once you receive a “needs improvement” at Google, that starts the process for your potentially being fired. You’re usually put on a performance improvement plan. You can’t transfer teams, so I could no longer get out of the unhealthy situation with this team. [It was at this point that] I started interviewing with several companies, because I really wanted to have my next step cemented, so I wasn’t stressing throughout my entire leave.
So I’m home with my daughter, and the first step in interviewing with a lot of tech companies is a phone screen. And some of them were video conferences, so I’m holding my daughter—in some instances she’s crying—and I’m trying to troubleshoot. Fortunately, everyone was really supportive, but I had to disclose I’m a new mom and taking care of my baby as I’m interviewing. That potentially opens the door for further discrimination.
“There’s this unspoken expectation that you’re just always on and leaning in”
Women experience so many hurdles [in tech]. I think sometimes women will look toward others who they perceive as not having to go through the same hurdles, or maybe they made different life choices—and I think there can be a lot of judgment and resentment.
There’s this unspoken expectation in tech that you’re just always on and leaning in. And if work isn’t your number one priority, you’re in this situation where your job is compromised because there’s always someone else who isn’t dealing with those circumstances and can work 70 hours a week. I’m still working hard, but I have very clear boundaries around work-life balance as a parent.
“I have more resources to fight this than most people do”
[Instead of coming back from leave in September, as planned], I decided to leave Google and ended up at Facebook. A day or two after giving my notice, I published the memo. In response to my sharing my story, I received a flood of emails and chats from parents at Google saying they have faced discrimination too.
I have more resources to fight this than most people do. From what I’ve read, most people [facing pregnancy discrimination are] in situations where they’re leaving their homes. They’re having to make decisions because they lost their job. It was awful for me, certainly, but it gets even uglier for people who are not in the position that I’m in.