Google’s Pregnancy Discrimination Suit — A Pregnant Business Owner Weighs In

    August 8, 2005

A report released in July 2004 by The National Partnership for Women & Families found that pregnancy discrimination complaints have increased 39% from 1992 to 2003, even though the nation’s birthrate has dropped by nine percent.

Whether the suits have merit or not, clearly pregnant women are “feeling” discriminated against and, in my opinion, that’s enough to make it a business issue worth addressing. As a recently pregnant business owner, I empathize both with Google and with Christina.

The Google Suit

Google has an image of caring about their workers with a foosball tolerant, dog-loving culture and a focus on helping workers balance life and work with great maternity and paternity benefits. That is why the news of Christina Elwell’s pregnancy bias suit against Google is so hard to believe. Not Google, right? They love workers and babies and worker’s babies!

The suit claims that after Elwell broke the news of being pregnant with quadruplets, her job was eliminated and then she was demoted, fired, rehired, and then demoted again after medical leave. Google says the lawsuit “is without merit and we will defend vigorously against it.” I kind of suspect “defend vigorously” will shake out into “settle quickly.”

My Take on This Issue

If the allegations of the case are true, it sounds like the employee-centered culture was not being embraced by middle management. Her manager is quoted as allegedly calling her or her situation “an HR nightmare.” But, I empathize because, let’s face it — he’s right. And I suspect that comment, while insensitive, came from her manager’s feelings of bitterness and betrayal. Here is this top performing sales executive, at the top of her game, recently made sales director. Google loves her and she loves Google. And then one day she tells her boss that she loves her career so much that she has chosen to implant (I am speculating) not one but four embryos into her uterus, and it’s not going well. She’s going to miss a lot of work these next nine months. And after that? Don’t ask — it’s illegal.

As a manager, even if you have the caring heart of a saint, this news makes you want to throw up. Of course she’s not going to consult you about the decisions she makes with her family and her uterus; you know that logically. But you cannot help but feel betrayed. All the time invested into her career, all the training, and she has chosen to do IVF right now. Let’s face it; it seems like she doesn’t value her job. Or certainly, she values it second to a family. And now she’s heading for a family of four instantly. Does her career honestly stand a chance? What do you say now as she sits across from you?

Now here’s the flip side. If your employee-centered culture has really permeated middle management, your manager will be able to sincerely say (without 5 minutes of hesitation or further questioning), “Congratulations!! This is so exciting!” That’s because he or she will not see a revenue stream sitting in the chair across from them, but a person. I have to believe Christina’s manager made the mistake of seeing her as a revenue stream. Before the pregnancy, a beautiful flowing incoming stream with lots of future flow potential. Then suddenly that flow was not only dammed up but was backwashing out through HR in “nightmare” fashion with short term disability, maternity leave, and a potentially vacant job held open in vain for a woman with 4 kids.

But when you realize that this pregnant revenue stream is really a person, you can also realize that like all humans she struggled to make this decision. And she is most likely open to being influenced by her environment. Not only is her future uncertain, but probably very flexible.

Keep these things in mind when an employee tells you she is pregnant:

* If my iVillage pregnancy discussion board participation has taught me anything, it is that there is a high likelihood she has not made up her mind about returning to work.

* If she’s come far and succeeded in her career (read into also as fairly compensated), there is a higher likelihood she wants to keep the job, if at all possible.

* What makes balancing a child and a career possible? The company does. If this experience is met with unconditional support, there is a higher likelihood she’ll make efforts to balance her career with family. That’s speculation, but pretty common sense, don’t you think? And by support I mean emotional and logistical.

* Her husband might be the one staying home.

* As a business owner, if you create (or claim to have) an employee-centered culture, do it because you actually care about the people in your organization, not because some business book told you it will help with retention. Because if the culture is real, then your management staff will believe in it — for themselves and for their employees. And that means they will say things like, “Having four babies must be scary. Let me know if there is anything I can do to help along the way.” As opposed to, “Wow. This situation is an HR nightmare.”

As it turned out, Christina had one child. I imagine she could have been back at work full force as a high contributor to Google after a few months. Instead she’s gone from HR nightmare to PR nightmare. Regardless of the merit of Elwell’s case, Google failed on this one. That’s my ruling anyway.

Rocky Lewis is co-founder and a managing partner of, which is an online marketing company specializing in SEO, Paid Search, and ROI/Usability Analysis.