Discrimination Against Parents in the Workplace

Discrimination against parents in the workplace happens, but it isn't always illegal.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law

Do you believe your employer is treating you differently because you have children? If so, you may have some legal recourse. Although federal law doesn't expressly protect parents from workplace discrimination, you may have a legal claim for sex discrimination in some circumstances. A small number of states (and the District of Columbia) specifically prohibit discrimination based on family status or parenting, as well.

Is Parental Discrimination Illegal?

If your employer refuses to hire or promote parents, or otherwise treats employees differently if they have children (for example, by denying them plum assignments), that might seem like discrimination. It might well be unfair. However, it isn't necessarily illegal.

Illegal discrimination happens only when an employer treats someone differently because of a protected trait, such as race or disability. Under federal law, being a parent is not a protected trait. However, sex is a protected trait. So, an employer that treats parents differently based on their gender or on gender-based stereotypes might be engaged in illegal sex discrimination. And sex discrimination also includes discrimination based on pregnancy. Here are some examples:

  • Svetlana's employer transfers her to a job that pays less after she has a baby. Her previous position required occasional travel, and her manager explains that he transferred Svetlana because he knows that new mothers never want to leave their babies. This is discrimination based on a stereotype about women.
  • Brian asks for an extended leave of absence to care for his son, who is undergoing cancer treatment. The company has granted leave to female employees for similar reasons. However, Brian's supervisor denies his request, saying, "I'm sure your wife can handle whatever comes up." This is sex discrimination, based on the supervisor's perception that women, not men, are appropriate caregivers.
  • After several new mothers return to work part time after having a child, Acme Company adopts a policy that all employees must work full time. Because this policy will disproportionately impact female employees, it is a form of gender discrimination unless the company has a strong and legitimate business reason, unrelated to sex, for the policy.

Not every instance of parental discrimination is based on gender, however. If, for example, an employer treats all parents, male and female, poorly, that isn't sex discrimination. Similarly, if a manager tends to be harder on employees who have children by, for example, judging their performance more harshly or disciplining them more frequently, that isn't sex discrimination as long as the manager is equally hard on fathers and mothers.

State Laws Prohibiting Parental Discrimination

Almost every state prohibits sex discrimination, which would cover the types of parental discrimination discussed above as well as discrimination based on pregnancy. In addition, a handful of states have laws that expressly prohibit discrimination against parents, caregivers, or others with family obligations. In New York, for example, employers with at least four employees may not discriminate based on familial status, which includes being a parent, having custody of children, taking care of grandchildren, and being a foster parent. In the District of Columbia, all employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees because they have family responsibilities. In Minnesota, employers may not discriminate against employees simply because they live with a minor child.

These laws don't require employers to accommodate parents by, for example, allowing parents to work part time, leave work early, or take extended time off. However, if the employer offers these benefits or opportunities to other employees, it must also offer them to parents.

Other Laws Protecting Parents

In addition to laws prohibiting discrimination, parents enjoy some other legal protections. For example, parents may be entitled to take time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act or a similar state law to care for a seriously ill child. Some state laws give parents the right to take time off to attend school conferences or events, or to take a child to the doctor or dentist. Some states also grant adoptive parents the right to the same time off the employer provides to biological parents. You can learn more about these laws by selecting your state from our state leave laws page.

A growing number of states are also passing paid family leave laws, guaranteeing working parents paid time off for the birth of a child or to care for an ill child. To learn if your state has such a law, see our paid family leave page.

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