Fertility in the Workplace

by Emma Claire Geitner

Despite movements to make family planning, parental leave, and childcare more inclusive, gender-neutral institutions, these burdens often fall on women regardless of their sexual orientation, relationship status, or even ability to conceive. A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found that roughly 40% of women had either taken significant time off or reduced their work hours to care for a child or family member, compared to only 24% of men surveyed.1 The survey’s findings support the age-old pattern that women are confined to a more limited, domestic sphere by nature of their fertility and its implications while men enjoy the nearly invisible evidence of male potency. Although fertility is at the core of childcare and family planning discussions, it is rarely explicitly mentioned, or even realized. The importance of recognizing fertility as the root of such social debates around reproduction rights is immediate because it provides a basis for men to also assume responsibility instead of a forgotten, undercover role. In turn, this can lead to increased gender parity and a recalibration of how women of supposed childbearing age are perceived in the workplace. While efforts are made to neutralize responsibility after childbirth, women are externally encumbered in the hiring process before any aspect of pregnancy is realized, independent of their personal decisions and capacity to conceive. In stark contrast, men exist outside of this reality in a sphere that only tangentially recognizes their role in conception. Thus allowing men to traverse professionally without a consciousness of impending pregnancy and its imagined effect on a company.

Fertility is a two-way street; it takes two to tango, but given the more obvious manifestations of female fertility—breasts, menstruation, pregnancy, nursing—coupled with gender biases dating back to the classical ages, a duty or standard of fertility is placed on women that can translate into workplace discrimination. Although such considerations are illegal when used to justify termination or an employer’s decision not to hire someone, a woman of a certain age can be flagged for her possibility to bear children. Such expectations assume a plethora of factors while neglecting to consider, a. a woman’s desire to conceive and the effort put into that goal, and b. her ability to do so, both physically and financially. Fertility is a construct placed on women that can lead to workplace discrimination without any mention of an impending pregnancy; assumed fertility allows pregnancy to be a persistent option and perhaps deterrent for employers, and this preconception limits or blatantly disregards the experiences of female-identifying individuals who may not be able to or choose not to conceive. Men do not face this dilemma, they are granted more privacy and objectivity when considering their virility, because it is not so readily evident or manifested, and there is a less enduring tradition of male childcare.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964, stipulating that employers cannot discriminate “because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions; and women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes.”2 By ensuring that women are protected from a kind of fertility-based profiling, the United States acknowledged that, given the connection between the female body and fertility, such an issue existed for women. The amendment includes language that protects both the already pregnant and those who “may get pregnant,” safeguarding against discrimination based on the perception of fertility as it relates to the possibility of future pregnancy, again pointing to a heightened awareness of female fertility.3 Furthermore, workplace accommodations for pregnant women are justified as “temporary disabilities,” because pregnancy may preclude an individual from doing her job for an interim period. I would argue that given the commonplace nature of childbirth and loaded meaning of “disability,” pregnancy should stand alone with its own set of legislation.4                   

Although women are now protected from fertility’s systematic prescription, its codification proves that fertility is an additional onus placed almost exclusively on women. What makes this particular discussion so intriguing is that fertility is not a singularly female responsibility or experience, and it is another way to problematize female reproduction and decisions akin to birth control and abortion issues. Assuming a woman’s fertility negates experiences and choices separate from a societal standard that associates fertility solely with woman when it is a shared experience. This rigid school of thought contributes to disparate parental leave policies and even the wage gap, because it decides that women will work less given their capability to procreate. As is the case with other societal constructs that infringe upon gender equality, an imbalance in fertility responsibility will prevail until individuals are recognized as having jurisdiction over their own bodies.                        

1 http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/03/gender-pay-gap-facts/ The narrowing, but

persistent, gender gap in pay

2 pregnancy discrimination act http://employment.findlaw.com/employment-discrimination/


3 Ibid.

4 https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/pregnancy.cfm Pregnancy discrimination