Understanding Black women’s pregnancy discrimination experiences

a recruitment flyer featuring a Black pregnant woman smiling with text "are you pregnant?"

Study recruitment flyer

US law prevents discriminating against pregnant people in hiring or job conditions and benefits. However, pregnancy discrimination is common, and complaints have increased—particularly among Black women and women of color.

Renee Mehra of ACTIONS and colleagues conducted interviews with Black pregnant women in New Haven, Connecticut, to better understand the intersectional aspects of their lived experience looking for work, working while pregnant, and returning to work after giving birth. They also explored their perspectives on how discrimination and bias may influence their health.

The women shared that they wanted to provide for their children and give them “the best life and opportunities available.” They wanted to have a job and be financially secure, yet many had a hard time finding or keeping a job because of pregnancy discrimination and bias.

These women were either experiencing or planning around this discrimination. Along with a lack of family-friendly workplace policies throughout their reproductive years, this caused immense financial burden and stress. Three major themes emerged from their interviews:

“You’re a liability”; Difficulty seeking employment during pregnancy. Many of the women shared feelings of expecting discrimination, and a few experienced it while on the job market. Anticipating discrimination and bias dissuaded some of them from applying for jobs or following up with interviews—they believed a known pregnancy would make those efforts futile. Interviewing while visibly pregnant was especially challenging. Many of the women weren’t optimistic about getting a job while pregnant and understood that employers would see their pregnancies, and the women themselves, as liabilities. While less common, several women brought up specific times when they were told directly that their pregnancies would prevent them from getting a job.

“I’ve looked online and made appointments, but then I tell myself, ‘Oh gosh, why go?’ Cause they are going to look at me and not hire.”

“This is not working”; Experiences on the job and navigating leave and accommodations while pregnant and parenting. Pregnancy discrimination and bias affected how supported the women felt in their jobs and their desire to remain or change jobs in the future. Women felt judged at work because of their pregnancy status and

disclosing their pregnancies was a source of stress. Women also had to manage their births while dealing with the desire or need to return to work because of limited family and medical leave policies. One woman even described choosing a c-section because of the longer medical leave associated with this type of birth, which meant she would get more time off to spend with her baby. Another woman did not get appropriate time off after an emergency c-section, so she chose to find another job with better benefits and flexibility before having another child.

“I’m making deadlines and doing everything else, but I’m treated kind of as an outsider, or just not a part of the team, or different notably different. So, I don’t know what the contributing factors could be. So, one could be race because I am the only person [of color]. One could be pregnancy.”

“It’s really depressing, I wanna work”; Stressors of experiencing pregnancy discrimination and bias. Because employment is tied not only to income but also health insurance and other benefits, difficulty finding a job or concerns regarding a job during or after pregnancy could be a major life stressor. Women reported stress related to financial concerns, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Stress was most pronounced for single or unpartnered people. These concerns also impacted women’s mental health. They reported negative emotions like feeling depressed that they couldn’t find a job despite wanting to work, feeling angry and frustrated about not being able to work, and feeling disrespected and offended when they were told by potential employers that they couldn’t do the work. They were keenly aware that despite their best intentions and positive health choices, the stress related to finances compounded by pregnancy discrimination and bias could impact their health during pregnancy and that of their child.

These financial stressors are consistent with economic inequalities that have long existed for Black people, especially women. A higher proportion of Black mothers work. That’s partly due to labor market discrimination against Black men, putting a greater burden on Black women—a higher proportion of Black mothers are breadwinners. Due to a long history of discriminatory hiring practices and exclusionary policies, Black women are concentrated in low-paying, inflexible service occupations that are excluded from various worker protections and lack benefits.

To combat these negative impacts, the researchers recommend that leave benefits come from state and federal programs and cover all employees. Although health care providers don’t have legal training to provide advice on employment issues, clinics and hospitals could provide information from government agencies or nonprofits. Providers can learn to write appropriate workplace accommodation requests—how the letters are written can be the difference between getting accommodations or getting fired. Screening for mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression should be expanded to explore possible root causes. Researchers can lead deeper investigations into experiences of pregnancy discrimination and bias to understand the system’s shortcomings and successes to equip advocates and policymakers with information to advance policies that better meet the needs of people most impacted.

The promotion of health equity and gender parity means addressing pregnancy discrimination and bias in employment, the lack of family-friendly workplace policies, and the harm they cause to people, families and communities, especially those of color.