Pregnancy Discrimination Act

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is a federal law prohibiting discrimination in the workplace based on pregnancy. While employers of more than 14 employees were prohibited from discrimination based on sex, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act added pregnancy and related conditions to the law. To explore this concept, consider the following Pregnancy Discrimination Act definition.

Definition of Discrimination


  1. The treatment or consideration of a person based on the class, group, or category to which that person belongs, rather than on individual merit.


1640-1650   Latin discrīminātiōn- (a distinguishing)

History of Pregnancy Discrimination

Of the 68 million women working in the United States, about 75 percent become pregnant at some point during their career. Prior to the enactment of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (the “PDA”), pregnant workers, and those experiencing pregnancy-related medical conditions, experienced significant employment discrimination. Although the PDA has helped ease workplace injustices, employer surveys have shown that more than 75 percent of employers would not hire a woman if they knew she was pregnant, or would become pregnant within the next six months. Additionally, studies conducted by George Mason University, and Rice University found that woman who appeared to be pregnant while interviewing for a job faced the probability of being patronized, or even met with hostility.

What is the Federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978

The Act came about as a result of the 1975 case of General Electric v Gilbert in 1976. The case concerned General Electric’s disability insurance program, which did not pay for pregnancy or childbirth benefits. The court found that the program did not discriminate, as it provided the exact same benefits for both men and women. For example, if a man and woman both suffered the same disability, the company’s program would cover them.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the district court’s decision, ruling that GE had not violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964.The Court also ruled that, since not all women become pregnant and bear children, the disability program did not negatively affect all women. Shortly after the Supreme Court handed down their judicial decision, Congress responded by amending the Civil Rights Act to include the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Congress stated that, without the Act, women were discriminated against on the basis of pregnancy, which is unlawful.

Overview of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act

The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 requires employers to treat all employees who are temporarily disabled due to pregnancy or childbirth just as they would treat employees who suffer a different type of disability. The Act also prevents employers from:

  • Firing women because they are “showing” (appear pregnant)
  • Refusing to hire women that are pregnant, based on the assumption that the employment would only last until they gave birth
  • Forcing women to stop working once they begin showing, or progressing into advanced pregnancy

While the Act prevents employers from engaging in certain behaviors, it does not afford pregnant women special benefits. For example, the Act does not require employers to provide pregnant women with maternity or sick leave unless the leave is provided to other employees under different circumstances.

The Act protects women who are likely to, or planning on, becoming pregnant. For example, an employer cannot refuse to hire a woman in her childbearing years because the job requires her to work with toxic chemicals known to cause birth defects. The Act also protects women who need time off to recover, not only from childbirth, but from miscarriages or other issues relating to pregnancy and childbearing.

When an Employer Violates the Act

When a woman feels that her employer has discriminated against her based on her pregnancy-related condition, she has the right to file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). The EEOC is the federal agency charged with enforcing anti-discrimination laws, including those listed in the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

If a woman is discriminated against, she must file a complaint within 180 days of the discriminatory act, or she may forfeit her legal rights to file a charge. Even if the woman is no longer employed by the business entity, she can file a complaint within this time period. If an employee is unsure of whether or not to file a charge, or whether she has been truly discriminated against, she can contact the EEOC to seek advice or become informed of her legal rights.

A woman who has been discriminated against should also:

  1. Keep a Record – Write down what happened, including all details such as date, time, and place of the incident, names of people involved, and whether the employer took action to correct the problem.
  2. Talk to a Union Representative – If the woman is a member of a labor union, she should speak to her union representative, and file a grievance with the union. If the woman is not a member of a union, she can contact a local civil rights group for help.
  3. Talk to the Employer – Ask the employer what steps to take to file a complaint.
  4. Keep Job Evaluations – In the event the employer attempts to use poor work performance as a defense of their discriminatory act, being able to present actual job evaluations and commendations may make a big difference.

When a woman files a complaint for discrimination, it is illegal for the employer to retaliate against her in any way. The employer cannot change her rate of pay, reassign her, or promote her during the complaint process, including the investigation and testifying. The employer is also prevented from reassigning or demoting a woman who returns from leave.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Business Entity – An organization established and existing apart from any other interest, business or personal.
  • Disability – A person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.
  • Disability Insurance – An insurance policy that pays disability benefits as a partial replacement of income lost due to illness or injury.
  • Discrimination – The practice of unfairly treating different categories of people, especially on the grounds of ethnicity, national origin, gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation.
  • Discriminatory Act – An act made showing unfair or prejudicial distinction for or against different categories of people.
  • Judicial Decision – A decision made by a judge regarding the matter or case at hand.
  • Labor Union – An organized association of workers formed to protect and further the rights and interests of its members.