Friday, October 31, 2008

Reproduction of Culture

I read an interesting post in the Feminist Law Professors blog today, "New Study Documents Sharp Rise in Pregnancy Discrimination Complaints, Driven by Discrimination Against Women of Color".

They quote a study done by the National Partnership for Women and Families that presents information about a sharp rise in discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace. (Full report PDF here) The key paragraph from the news release is this:
The new study finds that race and ethnicity appear to be playing a significant role in the rise of pregnancy discrimination complaints. During the discrete period from FY1996 to FY2005, claims filed by women of color jumped 76 percent, while claims overall increased by 25 percent. During that time, complaints filed by Black women increased by 45 percent, by Hispanic women by 135 percent, by Asian/Pacific Islander women by 90 percent, and by American Indian/Alaska Native women by 109 percent. More than half the claims filed with the EEOC during that period (53 percent) were filed in service, retail trade and the financial services, insurance and real estate industries — where some seven in ten women work.
The one thing missing from the study report are the economic demographics of the women who filed discrimination complaints. I suspect that there was no consistent way to gather that data. The PDF only presents summary information with a little data.

Industries that have low educational barriers are heavily represented in the claims filed - retail, manufacturing, transportation. Secretarial and general office employment is not clearly identified. It could be under "Services", "Finance, Insurance & Real Estate," and "Other/ Not Provided". The lack of job category data makes me wonder if the women filing the complaints are ordinary employees, supervisory/managerial, or executive level staff. The examples in the report cite two management-track situations and a hiring policy (Numbers are footnote references):
Examples include a case involving a female regional manager of a hotel chain who was demoted repeatedly after announcing her pregnancy. A senior vice president for the chain asserted that women were not suitable for managerial positions because they missed too much work.35 In another case, a maternity clothing specialty store agreed to pay a settlement after being sued for its policy of not hiring pregnant job applicants.36 In still another case, a rising star who had quickly moved into a manager-in-training position was told to consider her options and had her training rescinded when she announced her pregnancy.37
The mere presence of female reproduction is reason to discriminate. The report cites percentage increases in claims filed by minority women, but does not provide actual numbers, so it is unclear what the numeric breakdown is or if minority women are more likely to be subject to pregnancy discrimination than white women. Given general patterns in racial discrimination, I suspect the answer is yes to the latter. Are managerial level women more likely to file complaints than regular staff?

What can be gleaned from this? The gestating body is not respected. Pregnant women are a suspect class, not trusted to perform their tasks responsibly. The requirement that an infant be tended once born is viewed not as a respected obligation of the birth parent, but as something to be penalized, reducing the value and respectability of the affected party.

My point of curiosity, which the report cannot answer, is how much of the discrimination is culturally based. Are the white women who are discriminated against from an upper middle class background with professional credentials, or are women with origins lower on the socio-economic ladder and perhaps with credentials rather than degrees more likely to be singled out? To what degree are cultural stereotypes of "welfare queen" and "trailer trash" the background biases of the managers who decide a gravid body no longer deserves equal treatment?

In short, do pregnant women of the right class get better treatment, less discriminatory treatment, than pregnant women who are looked at through lenses of cultural disdain?

One of the uglier lines of argument to come from the Left against Gov. Palin and her daughter Bristol was that these women should not reproduce in the first place. They are just trash, they will reproduce an inferior culture, there is something pathological about their fecundity. Why wouldn't either of them get an abortion when the outcome was not going to be good - a Down Syndrome child for one, teen parenthood for the other with mutterings about shotgun weddings and possible incest. It is of a piece with conservative arguments about minority women's reproductive decisions, that those people shouldn't breed.

On top of general misogyny, lower socio-economic status women constantly battle bigotry that would deny them their own children. When it gets applied to women who are not so low on the ladder, such as the Palins, then the culture argument is easier to see because it slips from being a purely economic claim and begins to base its authority on judgment about the kind of mother this or that woman would be, and what pathologies she would inculcate in her offspring. That these arguments have been offered most stridently from the right and against minorities should not camouflage the more general class bias that is used by all political sides. I am concerned about this given the rampant misogyny on the Left coupled with the explicit rejection of working class and poor interests by the current power brokers of the Democratic Party.

The irony, of course, is that discrimination against women in the workplace for being (or potentially being, or just having ceased to be) pregnant is one way in which economic advancement of working class women is curtailed and the "pathological" culture they are presumed to inhabit is prevented from changing itself through stable, sustainable employment.



Unknown said...

In order to figure out why there are more complaints from women of color one would have to know the overall population of pregnant women and the breakdown by color vs. non-color. If the pregnant population is evenly distributed between white and color, but the complaints are coming from color, then we can determine that color is playing a part. Without knowing what the breakdown of the overall population of pregnant women one cannot figure out if the increase in complaints is due to discrimination against pregnant women or pregnant women of color. It's my understanding that most births in this country are coming from minorities, therefore it would follow that complaints of pregnancy discrimination would be significantly higher from minorities.

Anglachel said...


Here is a chart based on the 2000 census that shows the breakdown for fertility by race and age cohort. Rates vary not only between race but also within age groups, which may be a factor in discrimination reporting. Are younger mothers more or less likely to report discrimination?

The rate of birth may be higher for non-whites, but birth numbers nationally are still greater for whites than any other group because of being a larger part of the population at this time.

Of course, there is always the question whether reporting is due to an increase in incidents or an increase in willingness to report. Have minority reports gone up because women in these groups felt more secure about filing complaints? The pattern in the report I linked to indicates a decline in reporting among some employment types after 2000. Is this because discrimination declined or because women no longer felt their complaints would be heard or that they would be safe from retaliation?

The report is interesting, but not detailed enough to provide the information that we really want to know. Numbers as well as percentages are needed.