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Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, has kicked up all sorts of controversy with her argument that career women can be their own worst enemy and should “lean in” more to their jobs and their ambitions. But the biggest, largely unspoken problem is not that she is elitist, or placing blame in the wrong place. It is that most women can’t rely on their work ethic or the good will of their boss to get ahead--- they need stronger legal protections to effectively “lean in.”

It’s a vast, systemic issue. Women’s legal rights – at the moment of hiring, when they receive their paycheck, when they get pregnant, after they give birth – are consistently trampled, and many of them feel powerless to fight back. A recent WSJ/NBC poll found that an overwhelming 84 per cent of American women perceive bias in the workplace.

They can’t, like Sandberg and the privileged few at the top of the corporate heap, demand pregnancy parking or walk out the door at 5:30 pm every night. They can’t “lean in” to a workplace that offers no flexibility, refuses to pay them as much as their male peers, and reminds them at every turn that getting pregnant and having a baby is a huge liability.

Their experience is more like the woman who received a FedEx envelope from her employer shortly after she announced she was pregnant and learned she was being dismissed because, the letter explained, she would no longer “be able to fulfill [her] obligations.”

Or like the hospital employee, a new mother, who was reduced to pumping breastmilk in a bathroom stall after she was told: “If a patient with a colostomy bag can train his bowels to sh*t at regular hours, then you can train your boobs to pump after-hours.”

Or like the nursing home activity director who was forced out when she was 28 weeks pregnant because she had a history of miscarriages and requested help with the more physically strenuous parts of her job.

At our organization, A Better Balance, we offer free legal services to women who feel their workplace rights are being disregarded and hear stories like this all time. Even though it is illegal to fire someone because she is pregnant, we routinely see women forced out when they need a minor accommodation to stay healthy and on the job—and many courts are letting employers get away with it.  When there is an obvious legal violation, many women don’t take action because they don’t know they can or because litigation is expensive, time consuming, and very public.

Pregnancy discrimination is a growing problem nationwide, leading to job losses and economic instability for women and families when they need financial security the most.  Women who are pregnant or have children are less likely to be recommended for hire and promotion and, in most cases, are offered lower salaries than their male counterparts.  And rigid, inflexible workplaces, coupled with a lack of supportive leave policies, make it impossible for many workers, particularly those with the fewest resources, to cope with child care or family needs.

Can women do more to help themselves? Absolutely they can. At A Better Balance, we routinely advise women on overcoming adversity in the workplace – whether it is pay discrimination or resistance to a pregnancy or the needs of a new baby.  We seek to empower women to advocate for themselves and hold on to the financial security that comes with their jobs.

But let’s be clear. Combating discrimination is not something women can accomplish alone. Even Sandberg, to her credit, has acknowledged that her argument does not apply to all women.  Employers and government leaders must “lean in” too.  Employers should demonstrate a real commitment to gender equity and root out policies that allow bias against women to persist. Yahoo's chief executive, Marissa Mayer, has taken an important step by expanding parental leave for her employees. Others should follow her example.

Most importantly, we need concrete action from our legislators to level the playing field and ensure equal opportunity.   Today, Congress reintroduced the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act-- critical legislation that would help prevent blatant discrimination against pregnant workers and enable them to stay healthy and on the job.   And more states need to follow the example of Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, whose ten-point Women’s Equality Agenda lays out a groundbreaking plan to break down legal barriers holding women back. Key provisions include stronger laws to ensure equal pay for equal work, more explicit protections for pregnant workers and clear sanctions for employers who turn down candidates for work or promotion purely because they are mothers.

We need similar measures in Ohio and Texas and Alabama and Alaska and the rest of the country. In 2013, in a country that prides itself on equal opportunity for all, it is a scandal that so many working women are still treated like second-class citizens.  On the heels of Mother’s Day, we should honor them with the respect they deserve.


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