The XX Factor

Is a Pregnant Woman “Worthless” at Work?

“If she has that baby in April and takes off six weeks, she’s worthless to us.”

That’s how an Oklahoma Board of Education member assessed a pregnant, newly hired Jessica Russell. Russell’s new job is to represent the state Department of Education’s interests in the state capitol, but she’s due to give birth in April-right in the middle of the state’s legislative session. Those blunt words from the Board of Ed member (Herb Rozell) drew an immediate rebuke from Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin (“demeaning” and “disgusting”).

Oklahoma law does prohibit discriminating against a woman because of her pregnancy , either in the hiring process or on the job. But the question of applying for a job while pregnant, or taking a leave immediately after being hired, is one that has long bothered men and women (including pregnant women) on both sides of the hiring desk. Pregnancy is short, maternity leave even shorter, and a woman’s career is long-but no woman really wants to walk onto a job and go on leave a few weeks later, and employers can’t really be blamed for being less than enthusiastic about the idea. That the Board of Education hired Ms. Russell, visible baby bump and all (presumably without asking about it the forbidden topic) is to its credit. No, you’re not supposed to ask. No, you can’t take it under consideration. But how can they not?

When I applied for a job while pregnant years ago, I addressed it directly, knowing that my potential employers couldn’t. It’s probably safe to assume that Ms. Russell did something similar-but the results of that conversation don’t seem to have been conveyed to the tone-deaf board member, who says he was just trying to figure out “if we could have her in April and May, because that’s when everything gets tied up.” It’s not an unreasonable question. But it was an unreasonable (not to mention unnecessarily antagonistic) way to ask it. Not surprisingly, some are calling for Mr. Rozell’s resignation. It may just be that when he revealed what he thought about pregnant working women, he also revealed his true worth.