Bias Because Baby Is On The Way

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russ mitchell, pregnancy, discrimination, google
CBS

Sarah Babb had been working on the corporate ladder for a long time, when she realized she was missing out on a big thing — being a mother.

So last spring, Babb became pregnant. She and her husband prepared for a baby girl.

"It should have been a happy time, and instead it wasn't," says Babb.

CBS News' Russ Mitchell reports Babb was a manager at Merisant, the maker of the artificial sweetener Equal.

"As soon as I let them know, within a week or two, the demeanor of the company changed," Babb says. "They began to exclude me from large management decision and meetings."

When a promotion she'd been promised went to a man, Sarah Babb filed a pregnancy discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The number of reported pregnancy bias cases since 1992 has risen 31 percent, even though the birthrate has dropped. Pregnancy now ranks second among the fastest growing bias categories.

"I don't think that more bias is happening," says workplace law expert Joan Williams.

Williams believes Generation-X women have a lot to do with the increase in complaints.

"Women who are in their 20s and 30s now feel entitled to be in the workplace, and they do not think they should be penalized simply because they want to be good moms," Williams says.

In recent years Google, Novartis, Kohl's — even maternity apparel retailer "Mothers Work Inc" — have all been accused of pregnancy bias. Soap opera actress Kari Wuhrer sued ABC last winter claiming her character was killed off when producers learned she was pregnant.

"We have more women who are working and whose paychecks are vital for their families," says employment attorney Holly English. "So if they get fired or they get demoted, they are not necessarily going to walk away and say 'Ah, well, forget it.' "

Federal law prohibits pregnancy discrimination, but English says old assumptions still fuel what she calls a cycle of bias.

"If you think that a woman is going to leave, then maybe you don't give her good job responsibilities," English says. "You gradually take away her duties, she begins to dislike her job. Then if she quits, then people say, 'See, women get pregnant and leave.' "

Sarah Babb kept working at Merisant despite what she claims was a barrage of unfair criticism of her performance. Shortly into her ninth month, doctors insisted she stay home. Then heartbreak came.

"We lost the baby," Babb says. "You know, two weeks after that, and the doctors don't know why. But they do blame a lot of it on the anxiety and stress the company put me through."

There is still no clear evidence that stress caused her daughter to be stillborn. Babb was fired just two months later. Now she's suing the company.

In a statement Merisant told CBS News "… the company has had a very successful track record of employing pregnant employees …" adding "Sarah Babb was terminated for performance and business reasons."

"I didn't do anything wrong," Babb says. "I have a pretty pink bedroom that is all set and ready to go. Now I lost my baby, I lost my job. I understand that work is work. But when did people get so inhuman?"

Experts CBS News spoke to believe the number of pregnancy bias victims may be much higher, but many women chose not to take action because they fear it could damage their careers.