Just over 40 years ago--just before I was born--Congress passed the first federal law to protect pregnant workers. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) has indeed helped combat discrimination against expecting mothers, but it has also failed many women. Case in point? An infuriating (if unsurprising) memo penned by a Google mother surfaced last week, sharing all too familiar stories about a culture of gender discrimination and retaliation.
In the memo, titled "I'm Not Returning to Google After Maternity, and Here Is Why," the author discloses her experience navigating pregnancy at the tech giant. Her account describes inappropriate comments made by multiple managers (yep, I've been there, too), months of back-and-forth with HR after reporting these transgressions (I was too scared to talk with HR), a delayed promotion (check!), and even harassment upon revealing a life-threatening health condition requiring early parental leave. If two unconnected mothers deep into promising careers can connect over shared discrimination, what does that say about our workplace culture on a broad scale? I'll let you finish the thought.
The plain truth is that while laws like the PDA have helped over the years, you can't legislate away bias against mothers. It runs too deep. I know it because of the brave words from the midlevel manager who wrote the Google memo and I know it from my lived experience. If you're a woman in corporate America, you too have your stories. We all have so many stories.
This memo and our many stories are why we are so far from gender equity in the workplace. This is the reason we lack diversity in boardrooms and why even in 2019 (and even with federal laws in place to protect them) women continue to fear the moment they have to tell their employers they are pregnant. We're not just fighting to break the glass ceiling--we are simultaneously scaling a maternal wall. And it's hard as hell.
I can personally attest. I transitioned out of corporate America after becoming a mother for reasons all too similar to those of the brave author of the Google memo, ultimately leading me to found my own company, The Riveter, as a way to not only create the kind of workplace I needed for myself, but to also build a union for other working women.
I had a successful career as an attorney for 10 years in New York City and Seattle. Despite the male-dominated culture of corporate litigation, I felt equal to my colleagues for many years. Partners valued my work, my voice was heard in client meetings, and I had opportunities for growth. That all changed when I chose to become a mother. It was as if a decade of hard work counted for less the moment I uttered the words, "I have exciting news!"
As soon as I announced my pregnancy at work, I felt a noticeable shift in how my colleagues treated me. I weathered questions like whether I felt "up for going to trial" or probing comments about whether I would return to work. The last straw came when I asked for a due promotion at a large communications company after I welcomed my second daughter. Without blinking an eye, my manager (also an attorney) told me that the time for a promotion wasn't right because I had just had a baby. I remember thinking, if lawyers say this to each other openly, despite federal law explicitly prohibiting this discrimination, then what the hell are other employers saying to employees? Turns out, and we know this thanks to the Google memo, it can be so much worse.
We can, and should, continue to arm employees with tools and resources to more easily report bias in the workplace, but the truth is this woman did report the discrimination and was met with retaliatory action that affected not only her mental health and sense of security, but also her ability to produce great work. If this is the playing field, how can we expect women to keep showing up--let alone win?
Judging from the performance reviews the author transparently included with the memo, Google is now missing out on a highly trained and capable employee and leader. Just as I believe my former employer missed out on a highly trained lawyer when I, too, chose to quit and build a different reality for myself as a working mother. I went on to grow a company from an idea to millions in revenue with 80 employees in under two years--I am certain I am but one voice in a chorus of millions of women with potential who are ignored and thrown away. If that's not bad business, I don't know what is.
I recognize that I was able to transition because I had the privilege to do so. I had savings, an education, and family backing that came into play as I took the leap, and many women are not in this same position. Even so, until we link arms together--men and women, employers and managers and employees--to eradicate workplace gender discrimination and maternal bias, highly trained mothers will continue to off-ramp at alarming rates (43 percent of women with children leave their jobs). We will never achieve gender parity this way, and the true loser is our economy.
It's our shared responsibility to advocate for all women loud and clear: This is unacceptable. We all deserve better.