Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

The Impact of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act on the Workplace-From a Legal and Social Perspective

Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

The Impact of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act on the Workplace-From a Legal and Social Perspective

Article excerpt


Over the past forty years, courts and employers have struggled to define the meaning of Title VII's implicit promise to provide and protect employment opportunities available to certain classes of individuals. Sex-based discrimination has posed an especially difficult challenge. Unlike other proscribed forms of discrimination, the unfair treatment of pregnant employees presents a unique analytical wrinkle: only women become pregnant, and women's ability to work is affected by pregnancy (including childbirth or related medical conditions). At a minimum, women must take a leave of absence to give birth and recover, physically, from childbirth. Women with more physical jobs-such as police officerswill undeniably find that their pregnancy complicates their ability to perform their jobs. How then do we define and enforce Title VII's promise of equal treatment and equal opportunity? If a pregnant woman cannot in fact perform her job duties while pregnant, how do employers ensure equal treatment of these temporarily disabled employees?

The physical differences between men and women have been cited to justify treating female employees differently than their male counterparts. case law prior to passage of Title VII is replete with examples of court-sanctioned disparate treatment of the sexes. As the Supreme Court explained in Muller v. Oregon:

That woman's physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence is obvious. This is especially true when the burdens of motherhood are upon her. Even when they are not, by abundant testimony of the medical fraternity continuance for a long time on her feet at work, repeating this from day to day, tends to injurious effects upon the body, and, as healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical well-being of woman becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race . . . . [The Mother] is properly placed in a class by herself, and legislation designed for her protection may be sustained, even when like legislation is not necessary for men, and could not be sustained. . . . This difference justifies a difference in legislation.1

In Mutter, the Supreme Court thus made clear its belief that women's innate physical inferiority justified gender-specific protective legislation. According to that Court, particular care should be given to protect the health of pregnant women, not just for their own sake, but also "to preserve the strength and vigor of the race." The perception of physical inferiority, coupled with traditional notions that women should be confined to homemaker and family caretaker roles, has complicated women's workplace entry, and ultimate acceptance, to the present day.

This Article traces the legal rights afforded pregnant women by Title VII2 and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.3 The next Section addresses court efforts to define gender-based discrimination and the initial exclusion of pregnancy and pregnancy-related conditions from Title VII's proscription against sex discrimination. Section Three provides an overview of proscribed forms of sex discrimination in the specific context of pregnancy, both from a historical and a modern perspective. Finally, this Article explores additional issues facing women in the workplace today.


Over its relatively short lifetime, Title VII has had an important influence on the employment opportunities and conditions available to women. This influence has changed over the years. For example, although it is commonly understood today that Title VII's prohibition of discrimination on the basis of gender includes pregnancy discrimination, this was not the case when Congress first enacted that legislation. The following subsections discuss the historical evolution of equal treatment with regard to hiring, terms and conditions of employment, and legitimate employer expectations as they relate to the job performance of a pregnant employee. …

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