Commission Considers Enforcement Guidance on Emerging Legal Issues
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) examined perspectives on work/family balance and the intersection with the federal anti-discrimination laws today at a public meeting, as the agency considers developing enforcement guidance on the topic.
EEOC Vice Chair Leslie E. Silverman, one of the organizers of the meeting, highlighted the “maternal wall” that may act as a barrier to the career advancement of women with children, and the plight of the “sandwich generation” for whom the term “caregiver” has taken on a new meaning -- workers who hold jobs while also caring for children, aging parents or other family members.
“Fortunately, many employers have recognized employees’ need to balance work and family, and companies have responded in very positive and creative ways,” Vice Chair Silverman said. “Unfortunately, not all caregivers work in hospitable environments. We hear from caregivers who face barriers, stereotyping, and unequal treatment on the job.”
During the meeting, EEOC commissioners and invited expert panelists addressed a broad range of work/life issues, covering pregnancy discrimination; the state of caregivers in the workplace and caregiving issues facing women of color; demographic data and research; recent discrimination charge filings and litigation by the EEOC; and the current legal landscape and recent case law.
EEOC Commissioner Stuart J. Ishimaru, another meeting organizer, said, “Courts are finding that employment discrimination against a woman because she has a child, is going to have a child, or may have a child can be a violation of Title VII of the Civil Right Act. Moreover, discrimination against women because of their status as mothers is a key reason why women do not get promoted or get hired. Indeed, some women are never stopped by the ‘glass ceiling’ because bias against caregivers prevents them from ever getting that high. Men also face discrimination in the workplace when they dare to defy stereotypes about how mothers and fathers act and should act.”
Addressing the issue of work/family dynamics, Professor Joan C. Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law of the University of California, Hastings College of Law, stated: “Motherhood causes women to be viewed through the lens of stereotypes. This helps explain why women who are on the superstar track often find their careers derailed once they have children.”
Jennifer Tucker, vice president of the Center for Women Policy Studies, spoke of the extra stresses faced by women of color in the workplace and cited her organization’s National Women of Color Work/Life Survey. “Many women of color report that their workplace cultures are often alienating and uncomfortable – describing the elements of a hostile work environment,” she said.
Pointing out recent demographic data and research, Heather Boushey, senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said, “Women and mothers are in the labor force to stay. There’s no evidence that women – neither professional women nor the other 90-some percent of working mothers – are increasingly leaving the labor market to be full-time caretakers. Most families simply cannot afford to have a full-time caretaker at home.”
Panelist Elizabeth Grossman, regional attorney for the EEOC’s New York District Office, noted the sharp rise in pregnancy discrimination charges filed nationwide with the EEOC and state and local agencies -- which have increased 45 percent between Fiscal Years 1992 and 2006 from 3,385 to a record 4,901.
“Unfortunately, we have found that employers’ discriminatory behavior does not end with the birth of a child,” Grossman said. “In some instances, employers’ stereotypical attitudes about new mothers’ abilities to perform their jobs remain a reality, and leave many women insecure about their chances of successfully resuming their careers after childbirth.”
Zachary D. Fasman, partner with the Paul Hastings Law Firm, agreed that it violates Title VII when employers make decisions based on stereotypes about working mothers or otherwise treat men and women differently based on their caregiver responsibilities. Further, while he agreed that “employers may wish to introduce [family-friendly] policies voluntarily, to help employees harmonize work and family responsibilities effectively,” he cautioned that some positions may not be amenable to some flexible work arrangements.
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the Commission is available on its web site at www.eeoc.gov.