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The problem of a pregnant pause

Despite family-leave laws, the number of pregnancy discrimination cases is on the rise in the US.

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Ten days before Karen Wright was scheduled to return to work after a six-month maternity leave, she received a shock: Her employer was transferring her to another position, still to be determined.

"I was stunned, to say the least," says Mrs. Wright, who had spent six years as a university media relations director. "My reviews had been excellent, so I had no reason to believe I would lose my job."

When she finally returned three months later to another position in the same division, she agreed in writing to accept a lower salary. "I wouldn't have believed it if it hadn't happened to me," Wright says.

She is hardly alone. Although pregnant women have made great strides since the days when they routinely quit their jobs when they "started to show," situations like Wright's still occur with surprising regularity. A study released this month finds a nearly 400 percent increase in the past decade in lawsuits involving family responsibility discrimination, from 97 cases in 1996 to 481 last year. A majority of cases involve pregnancy, says Cynthia Calvert, deputy director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law, which issued the report.

"Obviously things are better now," Ms. Calvert says, citing the Family and Medical Leave Act as one gain. But she remains dismayed by the number of pregnancy discrimination cases. She is also surprised by how blatant they are.

"There are things being said in 2006 that you would have been shocked by 30 years ago," she says. "Employers still say things like, 'You're being terminated because you need to take a lot of time off for your problem pregnancy and for maternity leave.' One woman was told she would not be promoted because she got pregnant. We're also finding men requesting leave and being terminated." A chemical engineer won a $3 million verdict after her boss asked her, "Do you want to have babies or have a career here?"

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