It’s one of those stories that makes you double-check the publishing date, just to make sure that this really did happen in the 21st century: Police Officer Akema Thompson nearly lost her chance to try for a promotion to sergeant in the New York Police Department (NYPD), all because she gave birth on the wrong day. Luckily, she fought for her rights and won, but the fact that this story happened at all is yet another reminder that women are still being treated like second-class citizens in the workplace, even though they make up nearly half of workers.
Thompson’s ordeal speaks volumes about the way that female workers are still treated like interlopers in a man’s world. Even though pregnancy discrimination is supposed to be illegal in our country, the NYPD blithely informed her that people who were out on the exam day could only get a make-up test if you were called for court or military service, out with an injury, or had a death in the family. In other words, stuff that could happen to men. But even though pregnant women have no real control over when they give birth, there was no exception for women like Thompson.
This was no small matter, either, as opportunities to take sergeant’s exams only come around every few years, meaning that Thompson could miss out on years of opportunity simply because biology works the way it has for as long as there have been people.
This kind of discrimination was supposed to be banned by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, but the fact that the NYPD was so blasé in its refusal to accommodate Thompson shows that the culture has not yet caught up to the law. In many workplaces, particularly in environments like police departments, the assumption that men are the standard and women are the deviation is so widespread that it goes unnoticed. It is the air people breathe. It allows departments to forget about federal law and simply craft policies around things that are normal for men—military service, disability, death—but to treat things like pregnancy as unusual events that require no special accommodation. This, even though it’s far more common for a woman to give birth at some point in her work career than for a man to become disabled or to be called up for military duty.
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Thompson eventually won her right to a make-up test, with help from her union and the legal advocacy group Legal Momentum. The NYPD also agreed to make pregnancy and childbirth exemptions standard in its list of reasons someone can get a make-up exam. But the fact that it took so much effort to get the NYPD to realize what is obvious—that pregnancy is a fact of life and it needs basic accommodation—shows how far we have to go.
Treating men like the norm and women like they are anomalies is shot through our entire cultural understanding of what workplaces are supposed to be like. Take, for instance, the national debate over the Department of Health and Human Services guidelines delineating that preventive medications and services be covered without a co-pay for insurance plan enrollees. Most of the services, such as check-ups and vaccines, were not considered controversial at all. But the idea that contraception—a service associated with women—should be treated the same as other health care created a rage-fest amongst conservatives that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
To add insult to injury, many conservatives denouncing the regulation kept telling women to “pay for your own birth control.” That says a lot about how women are viewed as workers in conservatives circles: that they’re still considered silly girls who are just earning some pin money, instead of as real workers who have real jobs, as men are treated.
It’s hard to imagine anyone denying a man his right to have his insurance company cover his annual check-up by telling him, “Pay for it yourself!” After all, we all know that he has already paid for it, by working a job and earning that insurance plan as compensation. But when a woman does the same work, conservatives don’t treat her insurance plan as compensation. They treat it like a gift—or even a “handout.” She couldn’t have earned it, in their eyes, because there’s still an inability to see women as actual workers who draw legitimate paychecks and have real careers. Our jobs are still so often treated like they’re hobbies.
You see this attitude in many ways, big and small, from the way that offices are air conditioned (set for men’s bodies and clothes, not women’s or even, God forbid, somewhere in between) to the perennial problem of unequal pay. Indeed, research shows that this belief that men are “real” workers and women are just biding their time between babies has a dramatic impact on salaries. Research shows that women take a major pay hit when they have babies and men actually get a salary bump when the kids start coming. The reason is obvious: Men are seen as serious workers, people who labor to support a family. Women, on the other hand, are often believed to be too busy being moms to be serious about their careers.
These kinds of pressures are probably why so many women scale back or even quit their jobs when they become mothers. If people refuse to believe that mothers are real workers in the same way fathers are, it might seem easier to give up than keep fighting.
Which is all the more reason for all of us to be grateful to Officer Akema Thompson. Not everyone has the time or energy or family support to fight to be treated as equal to men, particularly during high-stress periods such as when you have a newborn at home. So when women can, they are fighting not just for themselves, but for all of us. Bit by bit, each fight helps normalize the idea that women are workers just like men and we should be treated with the same respect and dignity. Thompson had to fight like hell to get her shot at the sergeant’s exam. But the women who come after her will have an easier time getting their accommodations. Small victories like that add up, over time, to a much greater whole.