In early 2017, Jennifer, a sales engineer at Informatica, a top Silicon Valley data management company, received two pieces of good news. Her supervisors told her that she was on track for a promotion and raise, and she found out she was pregnant and due in the fall.
By the end of the year, she would lose her promotion, give birth to a baby who would live less than an hour, and, in the throes of grief, be asked to end her paid maternity leave early. (Jennifer requested a pseudonym to prevent current and future employers from determining her identity in this story.)
“I feel strongly that if you want to preach gender equality [as many of these tech companies do], then you have to show that you care about women when they grow their families,” Jennifer told Motherboard. “As a woman, I have to be the one to carry the baby. Faulting me financially for having that burden is something I find so infuriating.”
Since Elizabeth Warren shared in a campaign video on October 9 that after becoming pregnant in 1971, she was pushed out of a teaching position—many women have spoken out on social media saying they’ve been denied promotions, fired, and retaliated against for their pregnancies. In fact, the number of lawsuits filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is near an all-time high.
Discrimination is particularly flagrant in Silicon Valley, where women hold just 5 percent of leadership positions. A 2015 survey of women working in the tech industry in the Bay Area found that 75 percent of women are asked about marital status and children in job interviews. Forty percent said they felt like that had to talk less about their families to be taken seriously in their jobs.
“Pregnancy discrimination is a big issue within Silicon Valley. Managers start thinking to themselves, ‘If this person is going to be out for four to six months, how are we going to make do?'"
“Pregnancy discrimination is a big issue within Silicon Valley,” Ramit Mizrahi, a lawyer who represents workers in sex discrimination cases throughout California, told Motherboard. “Managers start thinking to themselves, ‘If this person is going to be out for four to six months, how are we going to make do? How are we going to function?’ And, unfortunately, this sometimes leads to them denying the pregnant employee opportunities, taking away her job duties, even replacing her or eliminating her role because she took time off. All of these things are illegal."
Google, for one, has been wracked by controversy for its alleged treatment of pregnant employees. In early August, Chelsey Glasson, a former Google employee published a memo titled “I’m Not Returning to Google After Maternity Leave and Here is Why,” that went viral within the company. By the time Motherboard published it, more than 10,000 people at the company had read it. The memo described disparaging comments made by a manager at Google about pregnant women being “overly emotional and hard to work with.” On September 3, Glasson filed a pregnancy discrimination suit against Google alleging the company retaliated against her for raising concerns about that manager.
In the early stages of her pregnancy, Jennifer was hesitant to tell Informatica, which does business with Microsoft, Samsung, the U.S. Airforce, and Allianz, among other major companies. A colleague of Jennifer’s warned her that she had had challenges with the payment of her commissions during her maternity leave. At Informatica, men make up 73 percent of the company’s 4,200 employees, according to Informatica’s public relations team.
In early 2017, Jennifer’s bosses told her that they wanted to train her for a new higher paid position, she said. “That was the promise,” she told Motherboard. “We’re going to have a role ready for you, a new title, a raise, and a different commission plan.”
Confident about her promotion, but wanting to secure paid maternity leave, Jennifer began requesting information about Informatica’s paid leave policies, only to receive conflicting information from the company’s HR department. “Everyone’s situation is different,” a human resources analyst wrote in an email. At one point, Jennifer received confirmation that she would have eight weeks of paid leave time post-pregnancy, only to receive charts that showed six weeks of paid leave. Human resources admitted that the paid leave charts they provided differed from their actual policies.
Informatica also struggled to provide answers about how and when her commissions would be paid. “Every single person I talked to had a different story about how payment would work and when I was going to get the money,” she said. After lots of back-and-forth, Informatica’s accounting director confirmed that they would not pay Jennifer for commissions earned by her team while she was on leave.
“As a woman, I have to be the one to carry the baby. Faulting me financially for having that burden is something I find so infuriating.”
“Some companies have policies that can discriminate against people who are on protected leaves by denying them commissions they have already earned," Mizrahi, the California lawyer who specializes in pregnancy discrimination cases, said.
As Jennifer’s delivery date approached, things quickly unravelled. Informatica revoked the offer for her promotion, blocking her from even applying for the job, which went to an external hire, she told Motherboard. “They repeatedly told me it had nothing to do with my pregnancy, and I still wonder,” she said.
Weeks later, Jennifer’s baby died less than an hour after she gave birth. At the time, Informatica’s policy offered paid leave solely for the purpose of baby bonding, but not for pregnancy recovery, a benefit many large companies offer, and Informatica requested that she return to work after six weeks instead of the eight Jennifer thought she was allotted. “Eight weeks of paid leave includes up to two weeks prior to the birth and assumes a normal vaginal delivery,” an HR representative said write to Jennifer in an email about when she should return to work.
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“My body delivered a baby. I was entitled to eight weeks of paid leave,” Jennifer said. “The reason I had to go back to work was because my kid died.”
In an email reviewed by Motherboard, an HR representative told Jennifer, “your situation could never be planned for so would never be communicated,” and “all normal situations don’t fit your situation.”
Jennifer says news of Glasson’s memo led her to share her story about the loss of her promotion and her fallout with the company after the birth of her child. (Less than two months after returning to work, Jennifer found a new job at one of Informatica’s competitors.) Mizrahi told Motherboard that she sees cases where pregnant women lose promotions all the time. “If a company was planning to give someone a promotion, and then finds out that the person is pregnant, they still have to give them that promotion," she said. "They can’t just say, ‘This isn't convenient for us.’ But situations do play out this way, and pregnant women are denied opportunities.”
Enacted in 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act made it illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee when it comes to pay, promotions, or benefits on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related conditions. This law was followed in 1993 by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which protects all employees with 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave for the birth and/or care of a new child.
Many large tech companies expanded the FMLA by guaranteeing to compensate the employee for their leave of absence. But 52 percent of women who work in the tech sector in Silicon Valley and take maternity leave say they shortened their leave because they believed taking off more time would hurt their career.
“Tech firms have a culture problem that leads to sex and pregnancy discrimination,” said Mizrahi. “A significant reason is the substantial gender imbalance; the number of women in tech roles and in positions of leadership remains low. Tech employees also tend to skew young. Overwork can be a point of pride, and time off for pregnancy and protected leaves is seen as problematic.
“Many startups still haven't come to terms with their size,” she continued. “They still see themselves as being a small team with an idea. But once a company hits a certain size, they need to have someone with human resources knowledge or outside expertise. They need to be mindful of sexual harassment, anti-discrimination laws, and other employment laws. If companies have vague or discriminatory policies and no one challenges them, they will keep doing the same thing.”
Informatica declined Motherboard’s requests for comment. In May 2018, the company announced a new paid leave policy that extended paid leave to 16 weeks for childbirth, foster care, adoption, and pregnancy recovery.