‘Pregnancy discrimination across corporate America is still rampant,’ author says

Personal Finance

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To understand why women are still fighting to catch up to men economically, author Josie Cox turns to the past. She doesn’t have to look too far back.

The Women’s Business Ownership Act, which allowed women to obtain business financing without a male co-signer, didn’t pass until 1988, Cox, a financial journalist, writes in her new book, “Women Money Power: The Rise and Fall of Economic Equality.” Women weren’t admitted into Ivy League colleges before 1969, and could be fired from their jobs for getting pregnant as recently as 1978.

“Pregnancy discrimination across corporate America is still rampant,” Cox said.

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Here’s a look at more coverage in CNBC’s Women & Wealth special report, where we explore ways women can increase income, save and make the most of opportunities.

Cox’s book traces the centurieslong battle by women to gain their economic equality to men, bringing many fascinating characters out of the shadow of history along the way. Speaking with CNBC this month, she said it is clear that the quest for justice has a long way to go.

(The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

‘Money is a gauge of power’

Annie Nova: You give so many examples of how women, in the past, needed men to even engage with the economy. Why was our society set up that way?

Josie Cox: In societies that are set up around the principles of capitalism, money is a gauge of power. And women have historically just not had as much power as men.

In my book, I write about the concept of “coverture.”

Coverture is a legal practice rooted in English law that dictated that no woman or girl had an independent legal identity. At birth, a girl was covered by her father’s identity, and, when she married, by her husband’s. Under the laws of coverture, a woman didn’t even have the right to her own body, which meant that any wages she generated through her own labor legally belonged to her husband.

Gradually, the power of coverture has weakened. But even today, there are traces of its influences — the tradition of a woman taking a man’s name through marriage is an obvious example.

Women Money Power by Josie Cox

AN: You write about how women could be fired from their jobs for getting pregnant until 1978. Do you know how common that was? What issues did this lead to for women? Are things much better today?

JC: It’s impossible to know how many women got fired for getting pregnant before 1978. It was just a commonly accepted and unremarkable thing to do.

Many women working in the paid labor market hid their pregnancies for as long as possible to avoid getting fired. When they did get fired, it was tough for many who needed the money.

Today it is, of course, illegal to fire a woman for getting pregnant. But as I write in my book, women still have to contend with bias and discrimination that is more subtle. Pregnancy discrimination across corporate America is still rampant.

AN: How was the repeal of Roe v. Wade a familiar story for women of previous generations? What are some of the economic consequences of the decision? 

JC: Access to health-care and reproductive rights are inextricably linked with women’s economic empowerment, and personal freedom. As such, the decision dealt a tragic blow to the progress we’d made toward gender equality over the preceding 50 years.

It will take time before we can gauge the precise cost — both economically and otherwise — of the severe abortion restrictions that have come into effect since the Dobbs decision, but it’s fair to say that it’s significant. 

Economy is ‘failing menopausal women’

AN: In what fields do we still need to see a lot more women?

JC: In many! Women still only account for about a 10th of Fortune 500 CEOs. Men still vastly outnumber women in political leadership.

We know that biases about who and what makes a good leader are reinforced when the visible image of a leader doesn’t change. So it’s critical that more women move into these positions of power.

At the same time, we need to ensure that we’re also chipping away at the ridiculous notion that men shouldn’t be primary caregivers and that they shouldn’t be doing as much unpaid labor as women.

AN: How is our economy, as you write, “failing menopausal women?”

JC: Menopause is still an unbreeched subject in most workplaces, but the reality is that it’s a hugely important thing to acknowledge.

As I write in my book, the age at which women tend to enter menopause — about 45 to 55 — is typically also the age at which they’ve gained enough professional and life experience to enter the most senior and lucrative jobs. The economic firepower of these people is enormous. But in many ways, the parameters of the workday and workplace just don’t work for them.

AN: Your book is filled with so many great stories of the women throughout history that fought for gender equality. Can you tell me one of your favorites?

JC: Dexter McCormick provided almost all of the funding that enabled the research and development necessary for bringing the first oral contraceptive pill to the American market. She was stranger than fiction.

Long before contraceptive devices were widely available in the U.S. — and at a time when they were, in some places, outright illegal — McCormick went to Europe, pretended to be a medical supplies buyer, bought diaphragms in bulk, sewed them into the linings of her coats and dresses and then smuggled them back to America where she distributed them.

She wanted women to be able to take control of their bodies and their lives, and she recognized early on something that we all know now: Access to reproductive health care is a condition for a woman being able to reach her full personal, professional and economic potential. 

The FDA [The Food and Drug Administration] approved the pill for contraceptive use in May of 1960, when McCormick was in her eighties. She went to see her doctor and got a prescription for it; not because she needed it, of course, but because she could.

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