Mothers of young children as almost twice as likely to be employed today than their counterparts were 30 years ago, according to the EEOC. In addition to childcare duties, many of today's employees have caregiving responsibilities for elderly and disabled relatives.
"Employment decisions based on such stereotypes violate the federal antidiscrimination statutes, even when an employer acts upon such stereotypes unconsciously or reflexively," the EEOC states.
Here are some interesting statistics to illustrate the trend:
According to the researchers, women file more than 92 percent of the cases, most under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as various state and federal statutes. (See right-hand box for some of the laws involved.)
However, the key to a family responsibilities discrimination case is not gender discrimination. Rather, it is job bias against anyone -- male, female, parent or non-parent -- based on stereotypes about caregivers.
The first major decision in family responsibilities discrimination was Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp., in which the Supreme Court in 1971 ruled that employers could not refuse to hire women with school-aged children while hiring men with children the same age. Essentially, organizations cannot have separate hiring rules for men and women.
But one more recent case illustrates how one employee's career goals were thwarted because of job bias related to traditional concepts of mothering.
A sales manager for the mattress company Sealy Inc. sued her employer, charging that she was a victim of family responsibilities discrimination. She had been passed over for a promotion in favor of a younger male. The manager's supervisor admitted that although the woman was qualified for the job, he didn't give her the promotion because she had children and he assumed she did not want to relocate her family.
At one point, the supervisor also asked the manager why "her husband wasn't going to take care of her."
In ruling for the employee, the court noted that the plaintiff inquired about the promotion and "repeatedly expressed" a willingness to relocate. The court also determined that although the employer did eventually promote the woman, it was simply an attempt to correct its earlier mistake.
The woman was awarded compensatory damages of $100,000, $1,500 in back pay, and punitive damages of $1,000,000. The total award was later reduced to $301,500, plus back pay, because of a statutory cap on damages. (Lust v. Sealy, Inc., 383 F3d 580 7th Circuit, 2004)
It isn't just large employers who are the targets of these suits. The report states, "The types of employees and companies represented in (family responsibilities discrimination) lawsuits vary enormously, from small businesses to the nation's largest and most highly regarded companies."
The report also notes: "Companies that mismanage their work/life programs tend to fare poorly in court."
What This Could Mean for Your Organization
According to the University of California report, there is "every indication" that these types of cases are going to increase. "Accordingly, it is critical that employers recognize the potential for liability and take necessary steps to avoid being the next defendant," it adds. Keeping that in mind, here are six tips:
1. Ensure company managers and supervisors don't engage in stereotyping the roles that men or women caregivers should play at work and home. Supervisors and managers sometimes assume employees with family responsibilities will have productivity or attendance problems, will provide care instead of doing work when telecommuting, will not take business trips, and will not accept promotions.
For assistance with your organization's policies, procedures, handbook and training, consult with your attorney. To read the EEOC report, click here.