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A story has been going around lately about a nurse who decided to resign from her position in the maternity ward of an Israeli hospital because they would not allow her to store her pumped breast milk in the staff refrigerator. The irony of the staff of a maternity ward which claims to be pro-breastfeeding being made squeamish by breast milk is lost on exactly nobody. The hospital management was wrong, and the nurse should have been allowed to store her milk in the fridge.

I am very fortunate to work in an office where I have a space to pump for my 5-month-old, and bosses who are fully supportive. The other day, my boss came into my office and asked if I’d heard about this story, which launched a discussion about something that has been on my mind for a few years now.

In my amazing work environment my supervisors and co-workers are all supportive and understanding of my responsibilities and needs as a mother. Throughout my pregnancy and since my return to work, they were all so kind, thoughtful, and respectful of my needs and sensitivities. But I can’t help thinking: what if they weren’t? What can a worker do to protect themselves from an unpleasant work environment?

When I was first married,  I spent months trying to get a job dressed like a religious newlywed with my hair covered, and at every job interview was asked about my plans for children. Sometimes in a direct question,  sometimes with questions that skirted the issue. One place told me outright they would not hire me if I had plans to have a child within the year. Nobody even called me back. Within a week of getting a wig I got two job offers. Once I no longer looked like a married religious woman, the threat of leaving to have a baby was diminished and I suddenly became a potential hire. I knew what was happening, but I had no way to protect myself. I couldn’t prove that any of those places didn’t hire me because I am young and religious. But the worst part was, if I had taken legal action against them or made a public fuss, it would hurt me more than it would hurt them.

When my boss asked what I thought about the nurse that resigned, I said that even though she was completely right, she is now unemployable. She has told the public that if she feels scorned, she will not hesitate to take the story public and run her employer’s name through the mud. Who would want such a disloyal employee? I’ve heard of several cases in which disgruntled former employees sued for wrongful termination and then were not hired for future opportunities because it got back to the potential employer.

If your employer doesn’t pay you on time, or fires you because you are pregnant, or doesn’t let you store your milk in the fridge, or any other such infringement, what can you do? If you are asked illegal questions or discriminated against during the hiring process, how can you protect yourself? Has this ever happened to you or someone you know? How was the situation handled? What were the consequences (if any)? I’m very interested and curious to know how many other people have experienced discrimination or unfair treatment in the workplace and if anyone successfully fought back.

October 2012
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