It used to be legal to discriminate against pregnant women in the workplace. If a woman took maternity leave, that time wouldn’t count toward her retirement benefits. The 1979 Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) changed all that: “If an employee is temporarily unable to perform her job because of her pregnancy, the employer must treat her the same as any other temporarily disabled employee.”
But what happens to women who took maternity leave before 1979? The 9th Circuit ruled in 2007 that the new law should apply to these women. However, today the Supreme Court voted to overturn the 9th Circuit’s ruling.
AT&T Corp. v. Hulteen, involved four women who worked at AT&T and took maternity leave prior to 1979. They said that each reduced retirement check they receive is “a fresh act of discrimination.” A seven-member majority on the Supreme Court, however, agreed with AT&T: Because Congress did not make the PDA retroactive, the company had no obligation to pay the women for past discrimination.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer were the two dissenting voices. Ginsburg wrote that even though PDA does not explicitly address grievances prior to 1979, it does say that all pregnancy-discrimination in the workplace must cease:
The plaintiffs (now respondents) in this action will receive, for the rest of their lives, lower pension benefits than colleagues who worked for AT&T no longer than they did. They will experience this discrimination not simply because of the adverse action to which they were subjected pre-PDA. Rather, they are harmed today because AT&T has refused fully to heed the PDA’s core command: Hereafter, for “all employment-related purposes,” disadvantageous treatment “on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions” must cease. … I would hold that AT&T committed a current violation of Title VII when, post-PDA, it did not totally discontinue reliance upon a pension calculation premised on the notion that pregnancy-based classifications display no gender bias.
In an interview with USA Today earlier this month, Ginsburg said that during oral arguments for this case, her male colleagues showed “a certain lack of understanding” of the bias a woman can face on the job. She said it was “for me, Ledbetter repeated.” In that 2006 case, Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Inc., the Supreme Court ruled that Lilly Ledbetter wasn’t entitled to file a complaint against Goodyear because she failed to file within 180 days of her first discriminatory paycheck — even though she didn’t learn about the pay gap until years later. Earlier this year, President Obama signed a law redressing the Supreme Court ruling.
Today’s ruling makes clear why diverse voices on the Supreme Court are so important. A study by professors from Northwestern and Washington University offered statistics about why it’s necessary to have women in the judiciary:
For the most part, we found no difference in the voting patterns of male and female judges, except when it comes to sex discrimination cases. There, we found that female judges are approximately 10 percent more likely to rule in favor of the party bringing the discrimination claim. We also found that the presence of a female judge causes male judges to vote differently. When male and female judges serve together to decide a sex discrimination case, the male judges are nearly 15 percent more likely to rule in favor of the party alleging discrimination than when they sit with male judges only. This holds true even after we account for judges’ ideological leanings.
Statement from Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), one of the original sponsors of the Ledbetter Act:
Today’s Supreme Court decision is nothing short of hurtful to the thousands of women who took maternity leave decades ago. Sadly, the Court, like it did in Ledbetter, misconstrued an Act of Congress — in this case the Pregnancy Discrimination Act — passed precisely to protect women in the workplace. Women who took maternity leave prior to passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act should be entitled to full pension benefits and Congress must act to ensure women’s pensions accurately reflect the amount of time they were employed.