Pregnancy, Your Weight, and Your Job

5 ways you can fight what feels like discrimination (without suing).

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Are you planning to get pregnant in the near future? How would I have responded if my prospective boss had asked me this some 13 years ago during a job interview for a medical journal? I did, in fact, become pregnant with my first child soon after landing the position, gratefully took my three months of paid maternity leave, and then negotiated a work-at-home deal. Let's just say, I'm glad I wasn't asked.

Many women are, though. I was surprised to learn recently that in 28 states, employers can legally inquire about marital status and childcare responsibilities and make hiring decisions based on the answers—even though federal law prohibits them from rejecting a candidate based solely on gender. Kiki Peppard, a single mother of two who was turned down for more than a dozen jobs after being asked repeatedly about her motherhood status, has launched an effort to get the law changed in Pennsylvania where she lives. According to a recent article in the Allentown Morning Call, one employer admitted to Peppard that he couldn't hire her because it would cost him too much in health insurance, while another told her that "mothers take too many days off."

In other happy news, Yale University researchers reported a few weeks ago that weight discrimination on the job and elsewhere is about as common as racial discrimination—particularly among women, who reported that discrimination starts at a body mass index of 27. That translates to 173 pounds for someone who's 5 feet,7 inches, or just 14 pounds above the "overweight" mark. (Men didn't face discrimination until their BMI reached 35 or higher, or about 225 pounds for the same height.) And, unlike discrimination for gender, race, or age, it's not illegal to withhold a promotion based on someone's weight.

(I write this after glancing at an E-mail in my in box telling me to "recession proof" my face with injectable fillers or a no-scar facelift to erase wrinkles. After all, the press release says, "A recent study in the Journal of Economic Psychology suggests that attractive people earn up to 12 percent more than their Ugly Betty counterparts." Ha! I think. Go tell that to the real Ugly Betty, America Ferrera, who's undoubtedly earning more than her costars. OK, she's an exception. And I digress.)

There's got to be something women can do to fight these sorts of injustices, short of going on a crash diet, forgoing motherhood, or launching a lawsuit (which they can't win if no law is being broken). I asked Cindia Cameron, organizing director of 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women, to give us a sensible game plan.

1. Do a little research. Your employer can choose not to promote you because of your weight, and that's perfectly legal. But let's say all the overweight males in your office made partner and none of the overweight females did; that's gender discrimination and grounds for a possible lawsuit, says Cameron. This may be particularly relevant in sales and service jobs where employees are in direct contact with customers. So, take a look around and see who's getting what.

2. Be nice, but firm. If you think you're not being promoted because of your weight or family status, address your issues with your employer—but with a positive attitude. Make it known that you're interested in being put on the "management track," advises Cameron, and ask what you need to do to get there. If you've already been turned down, get a specific reason why. "Essentially you're trying to call their bluff," she says. "Once you do that, you can then say something like, 'I notice that there are no parents of young children in upper management...'" Above all, don't threaten to sue unless you actually mean it, because then your boss will shut down and it will be your lawyer talking to the company's.

3. Get a buddy and form an ad hoc union. The same federal law that protects the rights of union workers to organize and make demands also protects those who form informal groups to address work complaints. So while you could be fired, suspended, or demoted for complaining that you haven't gotten a raise because you're a working mom, you can't be if you lead a group that complains jointly to your boss. "Private companies can't retaliate if you're standing up for the rights of a group of people," Cameron explains—even if it's a group of just you and one other.

4. Don't lie. Or at least think twice about it. If you're two months pregnant at a job interview, should you tell? "I don't like to lie, so I'd probably be upfront about it," says Cameron. Then again, you might choose to withhold the information if you're afraid it'll be a deal breaker. If that's the case, she recommends telling a prospective employer immediately after any job offer is made. The truth will come out soon anyway, even if movies like Knocked Up make it seem like women can go for months without telling. And you can gauge whether he or she is a family-friendly boss or whether it's better to look elsewhere. If you get asked directly about your pregnancy plans during an interview, you can turn the question around and ask how that relates to the prospective position. "If you're going to have to stand on tall ladders five hours a day, then pregnancy might be a safety issue," Cameron points out.

5. Get informed. If you think you've been wronged, find out the laws in your state to see if you've got the makings of a lawsuit. If the law isn't on your side, you might want to contact your state legislators to see what's being done to create more equality for women. To find out about laws in your particular state, contact 9 to 5 at (800) 522-0925 or hotline@9to5.org.