American companies have spent years trying to become more welcoming to women. They have rolled out generous parental leave policies, designed cushy lactation rooms and plowed millions of dollars into programs aimed at retaining mothers.
But these advances haven't changed a simple fact: Whether women work at Walmart or on Wall Street, getting pregnant is often the moment they are knocked off the professional ladder.
Throughout the American workplace, pregnancy discrimination remains widespread. It can start as soon as a woman is showing, and it often lasts through her early years as a mother.
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The New York Times reviewed thousands of pages of court and public records and interviewed dozens of women, their lawyers and government officials. A clear pattern emerged. Many of the country's largest and most prestigious companies still systematically sideline pregnant women. They pass them over for promotions and raises. They fire them when they complain.
In physically demanding jobs — where an increasing number of women unload ships, patrol streets and hoist boxes — the discrimination can be blatant. Pregnant women risk losing their jobs when they ask to carry water bottles or take rest breaks.
In corporate office towers, the discrimination tends to be more subtle. Pregnant women and mothers are often perceived as less committed, steered away from prestigious assignments, excluded from client meetings and slighted at bonus season.
Each child chops 4 percent off a woman's hourly wages, according to a 2014 analysis by a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Men's earnings increase by 6 percent when they become fathers, after controlling for experience, education, marital status and hours worked.
"Some women hit the maternal wall long before the glass ceiling," said Joan C. Williams, a professor at University of California Hastings College of Law who has testified about pregnancy discrimination at regulatory hearings. "There are 20 years of lab studies that show the bias exists and that, once triggered, it's very strong."
Of course, plenty of women decide to step back from their careers after becoming mothers. Some want to devote themselves to parenthood. Others lack affordable child care.
But for those who want to keep working at the same level, getting pregnant and having a child often deals them an involuntary setback.
The number of pregnancy discrimination claims filed annually with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been steadily rising for two decades and is hovering near an all-time high.
It's not just the private sector. In September, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of Stephanie Hicks, who sued the Tuscaloosa, Ala., police department for pregnancy discrimination. Ms. Hicks was lactating, and her doctor told her that her bulletproof vest was too tight and risked causing a breast infection. Her superior's solution was a vest so baggy that it left portions of her torso exposed.
Tens of thousands of women have taken legal action alleging pregnancy discrimination at companies including Walmart, Merck, AT&T, Whole Foods, 21st Century Fox, KPMG, Novartis and the law firm Morrison & Foerster. All of those companies boast on their websites about celebrating and empowering women.