Maternal Profiling: How Employers Discriminate by Marital Status
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Only 22 states and Puerto Rico specifically prohibit employers from inquiring about applicants' marital status. That means "maternal profiling" is a real problem for many women.
Just ask Kiki Peppard.
For 12 years Peppard, a single mother, has campaigned to get Pennsylvania to make it illegal for employers to ask about an applicant's marital or familial status. Last month, on Nov. 30, the bill died its most recent death when committee chairmen refused to allow it to move to the floor of the state House and Senate for a vote.
This bill has not only failed with legislators, it's also been pretty much of a non-starter with the press. Peppard says -- and my own Web searches confirm -- there was no coverage of the bill's most recent failure.
Peppard began lobbying for someone to take up this bill after she moved to the Keystone State from New York, where she says she had never been asked about her marital or family status during job interviews. She assumed, in fact, that asking such questions was illegal.
But Pennsylvania is one of those many states that says nothing against the practice, which in the absence of a federal prohibition, makes it perfectly OK. In fact, those were usually among the first questions asked, she said, and many hiring managers ended the encounter soon after she honestly answered them.
"You have to understand how humiliating it was to be denied employment because I was a mother, and how humbling it was to not know where your next meal is coming from, and that as a woman in this country, you really are treated as worthless," she said.
Peppard and her two children received public assistance for a while. Eventually she found a job in a call center at East Stroudsburg University (which did not ask her about family matters in the interview).
Handful of Clips and Tapes
Peppard also took on a second career: lobbying. She spent six years trying to get Pennsylvania legislators to sponsor a bill against maternal profiling in interviews and the next six trying to get the bill passed into law.
She says she has been contacting reporters from the very beginning, but after all that time she can count the news sightings on just about two hands and most of that is coming from the alternative or independent press.
One break came her way when MomsRising.org made her story a centerpiece of their cause to improve U.S. motherhood conditions. Peppard is heavily featured in the activist group's 2006 documentary "The Motherhood Manifesto," based on the book of the same name by MomsRising co-founders Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, who also published a Mother's Day piece about Peppard this year in the Nation. MomsRising blogger Cooper Munroe also got an op-ed about Peppard published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Sept. 27.
Following the MomsRising boost, Peppard was recently interviewed by a reporter for NPR as well as by Lisa Birnbach of GreenStone Media, the talk radio show for women launched earlier this year by a group that includes Gloria Steinem, a founder of Ms. magazine, actor Jane Fonda, Federal Communications Commissioner Susan Ness and broadcast veteran Edie Hilliard.
Other mothers' blogs also have helped spread the word, but her bill is still stuck in the political works and Peppard says major media decline her bids for coverage.
Female Anchors No Help
"I've sent numerous letters to female news anchors, the cast of 'The View,' Katie Couric, '60 Minutes,' '20/20,' 'Primetime,' you name it. No reply. I've sent letters to Paula Zahn. No reply," Peppard says. "I've written to Oprah twice a year for 12 years, asking if she would do a story about this on her show."
Peppard says she ramped up her media outreach in 2002 by writing to every newspaper and broadcast news organization in Pennsylvania about the legislation she was trying to get passed.
The Dayton Business Journal did run a profile of her ("Single Parents Frequently Face Discrimination," July 7, 2002), but precious little other coverage of the issue followed, even though Peppard was working with groups such as 9 to 5 and the National Association of Working Women.
"At the time, only one TV news reporter contacted me," she recalls. "When I asked him why he chose to do the story, he replied, 'Because I have a daughter and I realized the law you are trying to get passed is going to affect her.'
"One newspaper reporter from my hometown called me. I asked him, too, why he chose to do the story and he said, 'Because my mother read an AP story about you and she made me call you.'"
Media organizations have been paying a certain amount of attention lately to work-life conflict, or the stresses of trying to raise children along with the money to support them.
Work-Life Balance Focus
But those articles seem pretty frivolous compared to what jobless women like Peppard are up against. For one thing, they often assume you've already landed a job -- and probably a pretty good one -- and focus on how to balance job requirements with desire for personal fulfillment.
Last week, for instance, I found the tale of a computer programmer's request to compress his work week into four days so he could play a Thursday night gig with his band ("Work/Life Balance: What's It Worth?" Computerworld, Nov. 27, 2006).
And amid the season's slew of articles about holiday stress I also found one reminding small-business owners to give employees a few hours off to attend a child's Christmas play or handle other holiday tasks ("Flexible schedules may increase productivity," the Associated Press, Nov. 27, 2006).
Both articles discussed the benefits of flexibility, so to an extent they are laudable. But they also introduced a negative by implying that flexibility is by special request only, or for special circumstances, rather than a strategy for business success.
Speaking of business strategy and worker flexibility, on Dec. 3, Catalyst, the women's business research group, and Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center, released a report about parents who worry about what their kids are doing after school while they are at work. The authors found that organizational supports such as telecommuting, backup child care reimbursement, bankable leave time and flexible schedules are not only what parents most want, they are also a great way to boost loyalty.
The report also recommends that working parents ask their employers about the availability of such workplace supports.
But that gets us back to the root of the maternal profiling problem: finding work in the first place. If you are afraid to confess to your prospective employer in the interview that you even have children -- as Peppard says many women are -- will you really ask for the flexibility you need if the job is offered to you?
"What I can't stress enough is that this legislation impacts all women, not just mothers," Peppard says. "I can't tell you how many women have told me that they were asked during job interviews when they planned to become pregnant. Do you know of any male asked during a job interview when he planned to get someone pregnant or if he ever did?"
Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly journal of news, research and commentary about women and media.