Every night after a long day of work, I put my two young children to bed and sit down at my kitchen table to tackle what feels like a third full-time job: pursuing a claim of pregnancy discrimination against my former employer. I spend hours writing responses to complicated discovery questions, combing through countless old text messages, and gathering thousands of pages of emails. I’ll use most of my vacation time this year being deposed by lawyers, interviewed by psychiatrists, and appearing in court.
I wouldn’t wish my situation on anyone, but I keep fighting because I know there are so many women who aren’t even able to begin this battle.
Federal pregnancy discrimination lawsuits are on the rise during Covid-19—jumping 16% in 2020, even as more than two million women have left the workforce. As troubling as these new statistics are, they only tell part of the story; the real toll of pregnancy discrimination has always been hidden. For every woman who files a lawsuit at the state or federal level, there are thousands more suffering in silence—afraid of retaliation, losing their immigration status, or ruining their careers. Even for women like me, who have the security and the resources to fight this fight, it’s a monumental, all-consuming effort.
I’m in my third year of fighting the pregnancy discrimination that I experienced during my time as a user researcher at Google, and sometimes it feels like there’s no end in sight.
For years after Google hired me in 2013, I enjoyed only glowing performance reviews, regular pay increases, and positive relationships with my colleagues and managers. But in 2019— following months of persistent discrimination and harassment in response to my second pregnancy—I sought legal guidance and decided to quit Google during my maternity leave rather than accepting a small severance payment and signing a non-disclosure agreement. I said goodbye to my dream career at what I thought was the most ethical tech company in the world. (Editor’s Note: Fast Company previously reported on Glasson’s experiences at Google. Google declined to comment.)
After leaving Google, I dove into research about pregnancy discrimination to try to figure out my options. I ended up filing a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and they eventually opened an investigation. But after months went by with no meaningful update from the EEOC, I decided to pursue a lawsuit, even though plenty of attorneys advised me to leave it alone. “Google will eat you alive,” one said. I finally found a lawyer willing to take my case on contingency and I filed a state lawsuit against Google in July 2020.
During the precious few hours of the day when I’m not working or caring for my children, I’m mired in the details of my legal battle. And, unlike Google, I don’t have a full staff working on my case. My entire life has been opened up for analysis and scrutiny: Google has subpoenaed employment records from my subsequent jobs and, because I’m asking for emotional damages, they also get access to some of the most intimate details of my life, like my medical records.
My daughter turned two yesterday—on International Women’s Day—and every day I struggle with guilt at the ways my lawsuit has prevented me from being fully present for her during her first years of life.
While I’m grateful I found a lawyer on contingency after many turned down my case, contingency doesn’t mean free. As a plaintiff I’m still responsible for many administrative costs associated with depositions, filings, and engaging expert witnesses. This will ultimately add up to tens of thousands of dollars over the course of my lawsuit.
I’m a white, educated, cisgender woman in a double-income marriage, and I’m barely hanging on. I experience crippling anxiety daily, and a full night of sleep is a rarity these days. I can’t imagine what women in less privileged circumstances are up against. How many are not taking legal action because the sacrifices involved are simply too great?
It doesn’t have to be this way. Our country needs financially accessible paths to fighting pregnancy discrimination that hold employers accountable while protecting the identities of women who experience discrimination. This is supposed to be what the EEOC does, but the organization is broken. Trump-era policies have hollowed out the EEOC’s workforce and mandate, resulting in record low staff numbers and new policies that favor employers, discourage investigations, and encourage victims to accept lower settlements. Despite a rise in claims, the commission’s funding has remained mostly flat for two decades, creating a backlog of over 40,000 cases and almost half of EEOC staff reporting they don’t have the resources to do their jobs.
And in most cases, women have only six months from the date of discrimination to file a complaint. When you’re in the midst of pregnancy or caring for a newborn, that’s an impossibly short amount of time —especially during COVID-19. Women should have two full years to report pregnancy discrimination to the EEOC.
It’s not just women who stand to lose as pregnancy discrimination proliferates. According to a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, babies born to mothers who experienced perceived pregnancy discrimination in their workplaces are more likely to have lower birth weights, lower gestational ages, and an increased number of doctor visits in infancy.
We desperately need comprehensive EEOC reform as a means to combat pregnancy discrimination in this country. Women without the resources to retain attorneys, or the bandwidth (or interest) in filing public-facing lawsuits, need and deserve pathways to justice. Without them, companies will continue to discriminate with little threat of recourse.
Despite the challenges I know I’ll face ahead, I’m grateful to still be employed in tech and to be in a position to help other women. Every week, women seek me out for guidance as they contemplate beginning their own fight against pregnancy discrimination. Our conversations always start the same: It shouldn’t be this hard.
Chelsey Glasson is a staff user researcher, mother of two, and an advocate for working mothers.