With South Carolina's primary on Saturday, and Super Tuesday coming up next week, Tuesday's Democratic Presidential Debate seemed especially significant. And in one of the debate's most dramatic moments, pregnancy discrimination became the focus when Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren recounted her own experience being dismissed as an expectant mother. Then she accused former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg of asking an employee to "kill it" upon learning she was pregnant.
Warren had skewered Bloomberg during last week's debate in Las Vegas, challenging him to release all women who have signed non-disclosure agreements with his company or with him personally from those agreements, something he subsequently did for just three of them. This time, in response to a comment that her criticisms of him were "side shows," Warren said:
"This is personal for me. When I was 21 years old, I got my first job as a special education teacher. I loved that job and by the end of the first year I was visibly pregnant. The principal wished me luck and gave my job to someone else." [This was before the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978.]
Then Warren went for the jugular. "At least I didn't have a boss who said to me, 'Kill it,' as Mayor Bloomberg is alleged to have said to one of his employees."
The debate's moderators did a strikingly amateurish job all evening long. In one such example, CBS This Morning co-host Gayle King responded by asking Warren, "What evidence do you have of that?"
"Her own words," Warren shot back.
Producers in the newsroom are supposed to provide advice and information to newscasters via an earpiece during broadcasts. But apparently no one backstage informed King that in 1998, a former Bloomberg LP employee named Sekiko Sakai Garrison sued the company, alleging that Bloomberg had said those words when she told him she was pregnant. She also said he added, "Great! Number 16!" which was a reference to the fact that 16 of his employees were either pregnant or on maternity leave. Bloomberg denied making the comment at the time and did so again at Tuesday night's debate. But earlier this month, a second former Bloomberg employee who was present for the conversation confirmed Garrison's account of it to the Washington Post.
You can't always control the conversation.
Bloomberg's intentions may be good but, like many people who've grown too accustomed to being everyone else's boss and having their every wish fulfilled, his arrogance shows through whether he means it to or not. When Warren criticized his treatment of women during last week's debate, he grandiosely rolled his eyes as she spoke. This time, he complained that she was still criticizing him after he'd done everything she asked. (He hadn't -- she'd asked for a blanket release of all NDAs related to sexual harassment or discrimination complaints, not just three of them.)
As a result of Warren's criticisms, he continued, Bloomberg LP would never again ask complaining employees to sign NDAs. "We probably made the world better because of it," he said. "And by my company renouncing using these, we probably changed, hopefully, the corporate landscape all across America." That doesn't sound too arrogant, does it?
Then he declared himself done with the whole topic, saying, "We just cannot continue to relitigate this every time." That drew an amused response from former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, who noted that if Bloomberg were to win the nomination, he'd be relitigating it all year.
Note to Bloomberg and anyone else who's grown too accustomed to being the boss: If you stay within the walls of your own company and speak only to your company's employees, then you can decide which conversations you want to have and which you don't. But once you step out the door into the real world and start talking with people who don't count on you for their paychecks, you may have to answer questions or respond to criticisms you don't feel like talking about anymore.
And it goes without saying that an employee's pregnancy is her own affair and usually a source of profound joy. It's not something you can complain about it as an inconvenience to you or your company. If you do, there are likely to be consequences.