As the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA) turns forty, it is time to consider how we define pregnancy discrimination.
In recent years, courts have come to define pregnancy discrimination almost exclusively through comparison. Yet our understanding of discrimination, inside and outside the pregnancy context, depends on judgments about social roles as well as comparison. Both Congress and the Court appealed to social roles in defining the wrongs of pregnancy discrimination. In enacting the PDA, Congress repudiated employment practices premised on the view that motherhood is the end of women’s labor force participation, and affirmed a world in which women as well as men would combine work and family—a world in which pregnancy would be a normal condition of employment. A social-roles analytic helps explain the logic of pregnancy discrimination, whether it assumes the form of hostility to pregnant workers or a simple failure to accommodate.
Drawing on this social-roles analytic, the Lecture offers a reading of Young v. UPS, the Supreme Court’s most recent decision on the PDA. Young breaks from an exclusively comparative approach and authorizes pregnancy accommodation claims under both disparate treatment and disparate impact frameworks. The Court’s approach is informed by a growing popular consensus. As the PDA turns forty, nearly half the states have enacted pregnant worker fairness acts supporting reasonable accommodation of pregnancy in the workplace.