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Women end up on the spot when employers ask about plans for motherhood
Friday, May 15, 2009

A Pennsylvania woman is hoping the White House will help make job interviews more family friendly.

After 15 years of futilely trying to convince state legislators to prohibit employers from asking job applicants if they're married or have children, Kiki Peppard, of Monroe County, is seeking intervention from the newly formed White House Council on Women and Girls.

Calling such queries "legal discrimination," she has asked the council to have President Barack Obama press for a federal law that would prohibit questions about an applicant's marital or familial status during job interviews. A staff member has promised to bring it to the attention of Valerie Jarrett, who chairs the council.

"Employers are using that information to eliminate qualified female candidates from positions just because they either are a mother or have the potential to become a mother," Ms. Peppard told them.

She believes that's what happened to her. After she and her two children moved to eastern Pennsylvania in 1994, she lined up 19 interviews for secretarial and bookkeeping jobs.

But once prospective employers learned she was a single mother of two -- and every single employer asked, she says -- the interviews abruptly ended.

"We have to accept the fact that people do reproduce. Why won't Pennsylvania embrace families?" asked Ms. Peppard, who is currently unemployed but planning to return to school.

For decades, employers have been told they can't ask applicants their age or discriminate on the basis of race, religion, ancestry or national origin.

Nor can an employer discriminate against a woman for being pregnant. A Bethel Park woman won a $1.8 million judgment in November after she was fired while on maternity leave. Yet that employer is free to ask if she plans to have more children.

Even if the question sounds like small talk, Ms. Peppard says the answer may mean the difference between getting or not getting a job.

Angered at what she considers a violation of her privacy and vowing to ensure that her then-11-year-old daughter Carissa would not face the same line of questioning, Ms. Peppard set out to get the law changed.

It took six years of letter writing before she could get a legislator to sponsor a bill. She has found important allies in Harrisburg, primarily Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, and Rep. Craig Dally, R-Northampton, who reintroduce bills every legislative session that would prevent employers from asking such questions.

Every time, the bills have died in committee.

"I've been trying to get this changed for the last 15 years," Ms. Peppard said. "We cannot get these bills out of committee and it's very, very frustrating. I don't understand it."

She's been told that key legislators don't believe profiling is much of a problem.

The Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry has not taken an official position on the legislation, although spokeswoman Lesley Smith noted legal reform was one of the group's top legislative priorities. With this bill, she said, "A concern would be simply that it creates another cause of action."

The bills are there again this year, in the Senate Labor and Industry Committee and the House State Government Committee, but there's no sign the bills have any greater chance of passage this time.

Currently, 22 states prohibit asking if a job applicant is married or has children. "I think everyone can agree there is no reason to ask that question," said Lisa Matukaitis, a Harrisburg attorney specializing in family law.

Ms. Matukaitis herself was a plaintiff in a case against a Harrisburg-based nonprofit group over a family medical leave dispute following the 2004 birth of her son. The lawsuit was settled out of court.

Other groups have lined up to support Ms. Peppard's cause, including the 9to5 National Association of Working Women, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, the Pennsylvania Commission for Women, the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia and the state chapter of the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Questions about family or marital status "are not relevant to whether or not you're qualified for the job, and therefore it should not be part of the job interview," said Shannon Powers, of the state Human Relations Commission.

The commission recommends that employers not ask those questions, she added, but under current law applicants have no recourse if they do. "From our viewpoint, it is an indefensible position."

Ms. Peppard also has a strong local advocate in blogger and volunteer for the momsrising.org Web site, Cooper Munroe, of Fox Chapel, whom Ms. Peppard credits for coining the phrase "maternal profiling." In 2007, a New York Times article listed "maternal profiling" as one of the buzzword terms of the year.

So far, though, giving it a name hasn't translated into making it a law.

Ms. Peppard's daughter Carissa is now 26 and working as an occupational therapist, "but I'm no closer today than I was in 1994" in getting the law changed, said her mother.

"Now my focus has shifted to my granddaughter."

Steve Twedt can be reached at stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963.
First published on May 15, 2009 at 12:00 am