The judge who ruled that Bloomberg LP did not illegally discriminate against women for taking pregnancy leave raised an important policy question in her written opinion. Judge Preska did not drop “an anvil…on the work-life balance scale,” despite commentators’ efforts to portray her decision as a calculated blow against work-life balance; in deciding in Bloomberg’s favor, all she did was follow the existing law. In her commentary, however, she questioned the wisdom of law itself, and noted that one alternative might be for employers to “treat pregnant women and mothers better or more leniently than others.” Judge Preska did not say whether she thinks that would be a good idea. It is a dreadful idea.
The judge’s legal reasoning in the Bloomberg ruling is by the book. The federal law bans pregnancy discrimination as a form of gender discrimination, as it should – only women get pregnant. The law does not require employers to treat pregnant women better than other employees, just not to treat them worse. Based on the evidence Judge Preska summarized in her decision, Bloomberg LP did not treat women who took pregnancy leave worse than other leave-takers; to the contrary, if that evidence is to be believed (in an earlier ruling Judge Preska threw out the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s expert witnesses, leaving the evidence lopsided in Bloomberg’s favor), women returning from maternity leave may have fared slightly better in terms of compensation than employees returning from other kinds of leave.
The evidence also showed that taking leave for any reason is not a wise career move at Bloomberg. The company policy is, in essence, that employees must put Bloomberg LP ahead of God, country, family, and whatever else figures in their particular pursuits of happiness. Bloomberg scoffs at work-life balance, and while that might be poor business judgment or even reprehensible, Judge Preska was correct that it is not against the law.
Judge Preska makes it clear that the law, whether she likes it or not, grants employers the right to ignore and even discourage workers’ lives outside of work. She quotes former General Electric CEO Jack Welch’s grim assessment that there is “no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.”
The judge writes that “it is not the Court’s role to engage in policy debates or choose the outcome it thinks is best. It is to apply the law.” Judge Preska goes on to discuss all the things that courts do not have the power to police. She includes in that list what she calls “work-family tradeoffs” – she does not believe one can have it all. But maybe one can have more than Bloomberg gives: the judge observes that it “may be desirable” and “may make business sense” for companies to “treat pregnant women and mothers better or more leniently than others.”
I disagree. Treating pregnant women and mothers more leniently than other employees is not desirable. The view that pregnant women and mothers deserve special treatment may appear feminist, but it actually serves the interests of those who want women pregnant and at home while daddy wins the bread. The law already bars employers from discriminating against women because of pregnancy and related medical conditions, so this policy question is not about whether women’s biology holds them back in the workplace. It is about whether some mothers’ choices to spend more time away from work than fathers and non-parents do should be underwritten by the government and employers.
“Treat[ing] pregnant women and mothers better…than others” would be an insult and a disservice to several groups of “others.” First, fathers: why should employers treat mothers better than fathers? To ensure that women take more time off work and that men don’t? To reinforce sexist stereotypes that, compared to men, women are better at/prefer/should be raising children? Those stereotypes don’t need much reinforcement: studies have shown that men who take paternity leave are later penalized in terms of compensation and promotion compared to men who leave all the child-rearing to women. The attitudes behind those penalties are the same attitudes that support treating mothers better than other employees.
The second group of slighted “others” is the ill and disabled: why should pregnant women and new mothers be treated better than employees who take leave that is necessary for different medical reasons? Pregnant women at least chose to suffer their medical condition, unlike people who have to take leave for, say, a kidney transplant, or to care for a dying parent. Pregnant women and new mothers should not be treated worse than others with medical conditions, and they should not be treated better.
Third, non-mothers: treating female employees who choose to bear children better than those who do not (and in some cases cannot) devalues the lives of women without kids. Requiring employers to treat mothers better in the workplace than women who are not mothers would divert both public and private resources to subsidize the individual lifestyles of people who choose to have children. People do not have children for the greater good or out of a sense of civic duty – they have children because they want to. It makes no sense to force employers to grant preferential treatment to women who choose to spend their time and resources having children over women who choose to spend their time and resources doing something else. It is not up to employers to value any of these private, non-employment-related choices over the others.
Judge Preska put a point on this policy debate by referring to “work-family tradeoffs” rather than “work-life tradeoffs.” But these are not the same thing. Family is not a substitute for life; family is a part of life, but there is more. For most people blessed with the resources to choose how to spend their time, life includes friends, the arts, physical activity, spirituality, or any of many other interests. The judge’s phrase, “work-family tradeoffs,” frames the issue as a question of trading family time for work time, implying that family is the only thing that could possibly merit time off of work. In the context of a gender discrimination case like this one, this framing is not only reductionist, it is frightening in its confinement of female employees to only two spheres: family and making a living.
Judge Preska merely outlines the policy choice of favoring mothers over other employees. She does not claim it as her own. But it is not a straw man: it is at the heart of many “work-life balance” criticisms of the judge’s ruling. Critics are not satisfied with the law’s requirement that employers treat women who take medical leave related to pregnancy the same as other employees who take leave for other reasons. They want pregnancy and motherhood to be privileged.
I am not on Bloomberg’s side. Expecting employees to put work above all else is a recipe for misery for all but workaholics, and an ugly manifestation of corporate greed. But putting children above all else is not the answer for everyone either.
Judges lack the power to force employers to facilitate humane work schedules, and in a free market with more workers than jobs, employees lack the leverage to reach company- or industry-wide bargains for a better balance. At least for now, people who choose to have children will have to make trade-offs to pursue their dreams the same way that people without children do. Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and Judge Preska’s ruling, pregnancy and related medical conditions are not a part of that trade-off – they should have no different effect than any other medical condition.
If other “work-family” trade-offs continue to fall more heavily on mothers than fathers, they will have a discriminatory effect. The most immediate and attainable palliative is for fathers to step up and mothers to step back. As more fathers take more parental leave the stereotype of women as children’s natural caretakers will begin to erode, and if women take less leave, the stereotype that women are not as committed to their work as men are may begin to erode too. Parents who can afford for mom to take non-medical time off with the kids should not wait for the courts or the legislature to solve their childcare challenges. They should tap underutilized in-house talent instead: dads.