Yang: Pregnancy Discrimination and Workplace Retaliation Remain Problems

EEOC's first Asian-American chair discusses priorities

By Dana Wilkie Sep 8, 2014
Employers retaliating against workers who pursue discrimination claims and women suffering workplace repercussions while pregnant or raising children are two areas Jenny R. Yang plans to focus on as the newly named chairwoman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Yang is the first Asian-American to lead the national agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws and champions equal employment opportunities.

“Many people would be surprised that [pregnancy discrimination] continues to be prevalent in the workplace—including people being fired, or job offers rescinded, or [women who] don’t receive ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] accommodations related to pregnancy,” said Yang, whom President Barack Obama elevated from vice chairwoman to chairwoman on Sept. 2, 2014. “There is this overarching view that once women have children, they will not be as reliable as they were before.”

The EEOC recently updated its Pregnancy Discrimination Guidance “because we continue to receive a high number of blatant pregnancy discrimination charges, despite the fact that it's been 36 years since the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act,” said EEOC spokeswoman Christine Nazer.

Yang, a civil rights and employment lawyer who replaces outgoing Chair Jacqueline Berrien, said she is also concerned by the high numbers of EEOC claims alleging employer retaliation against workers who pursue discrimination charges.

“We have continued to see the highest incidence of retaliation charges,” Yang said during an interview with SHRM Online. “How do we ensure that all workers understand their rights and are willing to come forward?”

One possibility, Yang said, is for the EEOC to work more closely with the business community “so we can understand how [to] foster broad and sustained compliance … and also raise awareness in the employee community that they do have protections.”

Yang discussed the discrimination she saw growing up as the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Raised in New Jersey, Yang had no Asian-American teachers in her grade school. “The first time I saw an Asian-American teacher … was on TV,” she said. “I recall a light going off and thinking, ‘I didn’t know Asian-Americans could be teachers.’ If you haven’t seen people in different roles, you may not imagine it’s possible.”

Her husband’s parents—Korean immigrants who owned a grocery store in New York City—“did not have the ability to hire an HR department or outside counsel to make sure they understood how all the laws worked,” she said. “There’s an important role for [the EEOC] in assisting small businesses to understand how to comply” with anti-discrimination and equal employment laws.

Yang’s mother “had experiences at work that made her feel like she didn’t have opportunities because of her background,” Yang said, although she declined to elaborate. “It was something that was informative for me, because it showed me how important it is to be treated with equality and dignity. It inspired me to pursue a career in this area.”

Yang was a partner at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, where she represented employees in civil rights and employment actions and was chairwoman of the firm's hiring and diversity committee. She’s a former senior trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, where she enforced federal laws prohibiting discrimination in employment by state and local government employers. She worked at the National Employment Law Project to protect the rights of garment workers.

Obama first nominated Yang to the commission in August 2012, and the U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed her nomination on April 25, 2013. Her EEOC term expires on July 1, 2017.

During her time on the EEOC, Yang spearheaded a review of an agency program that addresses issues of alleged discrimination that affect an industry, profession, company or geographic area. She also represented the EEOC on the White House initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Yang earned her bachelor’s degree in government from Cornell University and her law degree from New York University School of Law. She clerked for U.S. District Judge Edmund Ludwig.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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