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Smith College stands accused of pregnancy discrimination

Lisa Newman accused Smith College, her former employer, of pregnancy discrimination and has filed a complaint with the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

It was 2007, and Lisa Newman had just miscarried. She went to a superior’s office at Smith College to say she would need to take time to recover from surgery, Newman said.

Instead of a kind word, the superior pounded on the desk and demanded to know how many children Newman planned to have, according to Newman. That would affect her work at the school, the superior said.

That allegation and others are contained in a complaint Newman filed in May against the Northampton women’s college with the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

It says the college repeatedly retaliated against Newman during her two pregnancies and two miscarriages, to the point where Newman said she was so fearful of losing her job she stopped attending physical therapy and had trouble eating. Newman resigned in 2012 because of the alleged repeated discrimination over her six years at the college, according to her complaint.

“I had just lost my baby, and I couldn’t properly grieve for losing my baby, and that was really hard on me,” Newman said in an interview.


Newman is the second woman to file a pregnancy discrimination case against the prestigious liberal arts college in recent years. Another former employee alleged similar discrimination in a complaint filed with the state in 2014. The college settled that case a year later.

Smith spokesman Sam Masinter said the college takes the rights of pregnant employees “very seriously.” He said the school had not seen Newman’s complaint or been contacted by Education Department officials.

Last year, President Kathleen McCartney wrote an op-ed in the Globe advocating for more generous parental leave policies. McCartney became president the year after Newman resigned.

In April, the president announced more generous leave policies for Smith’s employees, expanding paid leave for staff to 12 weeks from eight for primary caregivers and to four weeks from one for secondary care givers.


Newman said that although the school may have good policies, in her experience they were not implemented well. Her complaint describes several other incidents of alleged discrimination that Newman said worsened after she reported the discrimination, as she was required to do by the school’s sexual harassment policy.

“There was no place for me to go, there was no administrator for me to go to,” she said. “I exhausted every single option I could think of.”

The Education Department does not confirm the receipt of complaints but, through a spokesman said it evaluates all complaints it receives.

According to correspondence between Newman and an Education Department attorney, the alleged discrimination occurred outside the department’s 180-day window that begins on the date of the most recent alleged discrimination. Newman argued in her complaint that the timeliness requirement be waived. Advocates say it’s common for traumatized women to take longer to file complaints.

The correspondence shows that the Education Department is processing the complaint to determine whether it will open an investigation, and that it has referred the case to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The second complaint, to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, describes a similar situation.

After Deirdre Manning, Smith’s former director of environmental sustainability, took 12 weeks of parental leave after her daughter was born in 2012, an administrator made life difficult, the complaint alleges.

Manning said the administrator criticized her need to eat frequently, including during staff meetings, and accused her of abusing sick time when she took a day off to care for her ill daughter, according to the complaint.


Then things got worse. In 2014, the administrator ordered her to work on evenings and weekends to complete a project, the complaint says. Manning said she could not do that because she was a single mother of two, but the administrator said she had to work two hours every night at home after her daughter went to bed, the complaint says.

A week later, the administrator told Manning her position had been eliminated, according to the complaint.

“I believed that the elimination of my position, which would happen while I was on parental leave, was an excuse to get rid of me because I would be a mother of two young children,” the complaint says.

Manning did not respond to requests for comment from the Globe. Masinter, the Smith spokesman, would not say whether the college had filed a response to the complaint or denied liability before settling.

Meanwhile, a bill filed at State House would give pregnant workers the right to more accommodations like the ones Newman and Manning sought. The bill has languished in the Legislature for months, largely because of opposition from business lobbyists.

Last summer, Newman testified in favor of the proposed law, hoping that if she shared her experiences others would not have to endure the same problems.


Liz Friedman, program director of the Hadley-based organization MotherWoman, which seeks the bill’s passage, said she met a third Smith employee who still works at the college but believes she is also the subject of pregnancy discrimination. The employee felt treated as though she asked for special privileges rather than reasonable accommodations, Friedman said.

“I’ve heard these stories from pregnant workers from very different segments of the workforce, which to my mind points in the direction of needing to ensure protection for all pregnant workers,” Friedman said.

In the past five years, the federal Department of Education has received three complaints, not including the one at Smith, related to pregnancy, childbirth, or termination of pregnancy discrimination, and opened one investigation at the Branford Hall Career Institute in Springfield in May 2016, according to a spokesman.

Robin Wilson, who covers workplace issues for The Chronicle of Higher Education, said academia often lags behind in terms of its written and unwritten rules.

“The corporate world, in terms of handling all kinds of personnel issues, has traditionally been a lot farther ahead,” she said.

Laura Krantz can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.