Mom Talk: Taking Maternity Discrimination To Court
Written by Kiley Taslitz
Photography by Photo courtesy of Kiley Taslitz
Today’s Mom Talk covers a sad and often too common experience for women returning to the workforce post-baby: maternity discrimination. Kiley Taslitz, a mother of two, co-founder of Jetson and Jettie (probiotics for kids & babies, which launched earlier this year), details her experience with a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit brought against her former employer.
It is normal for women to have insecurities when entering motherhood. The extreme changes to our bodies, taking on a new role, facing “firsts” every day, and the overwhelming responsibility of caring for a fragile little life. Not to mention, managing our changing hormones and the new relationship dynamic we have with our partners.
I overcame most of those insecurities and challenges with my first pregnancy and felt confident going into baby number two.
Regardless of confidence, there’s always a natural tension around the decision of when to tell your extended family and friends the exciting news. And as a working mom, there’s an added layer of when to tell your boss and co-workers. Many women have concerns about a poor reaction, fearing that their excitement will be met with disappointment.
When I was pregnant with my second son, I wasn’t nervous about sharing the news. I even opted to tell my boss in my first trimester. I was one of five senior leaders at the company, two of whom were female. I had only received positive feedback in this job and had recently received a promotion and salary increase as a result of consistently meeting or exceeding my goals. I was sure that my boss, Tristan* (the CEO), someone I considered a friend, would be thrilled about my growing family.
On a business trip in Detroit, I sat at dinner with our female Vice President and Tristan, and told them my news. I was met with excitement and a celebratory toast (them with martinis and me with sparkling water).
The following week in L.A., I met with Tristan for our regular weekly meeting. He informed me that he would be cutting my sales compensation in half, based on his assumption that as a pregnant employee I would not be able to make my targets—a large variance from the contract we’d signed a few weeks earlier. He asked me questions about when I’d have to stop work travel, when I’d have to leave to give birth to my child, how long I expected to be out and how I expected to hit my yearly sales target given my “condition.” I answered, explaining that I didn’t plan to leave, I would just be taking maternity leave and had confidence I could still hit my sales goals. My performance had never suggested otherwise, as I had done all that and more while pregnant with my first child.
Two days later, Tristan asked me to coffee, and told me that the company could no longer afford to pay my salary. That he had just bought an expensive house, so my pregnancy was bad timing for him. He requested that I not tell anyone why I was leaving the company, particularly his girlfriend. He didn’t want it getting back to her family, knowing that was a possibility because she and I had grown up together. After all, I was the one who had introduced them a year prior. I was informed that the next day would be my last. And he “could really use my help in crafting the narrative around my departure to the rest of the team.”
The next day, I spent the morning cleaning up open items and organizing files to make it easy for the team to pick up my tasks. Despite my mistreatment, I was leaving a job I loved and coworkers I’ve kept close with to this day. Leaving on good terms was the only option for me. I acted according to my principles.
Mid day, we met in the conference room and he offered me minimal severance in exchange for signing a Separation Agreement. I sighed and told him I’d get back to him after I consulted an attorney to be sure as to what I was signing. He then became hostile.
As I gathered my things, he came to my desk and accused me of spending the morning stealing company documents. Offended by the comment, I told him I’d be leaving. He fired me for being pregnant, and even though I tried to do the right thing, he accused me of theft and dishonesty.
I calmly walked out, got in my car, and sobbed.
A few of my coworkers let me know that afternoon Tristan held an all company meeting and told the employees I was fired because I was a poor performer. He then walked them through a financial presentation to highlight what good shape the company was in, and that no one else should be concerned for their jobs.
There I was pregnant, with a two year old at home, and unable to tell anyone what happened out of fear I wouldn’t receive severance. I was terrified of how difficult it would be to find a job while pregnant. And if I did find a job, I was worried I wouldn’t qualify for maternity leave.
My inability to explain the reason I left my job started to weigh on me. I knew I was a strong performer but wasn’t allowed to speak about the real reason I was fired.
I shared my story with an employment attorney. I didn’t want trouble, I only wanted to receive the equivalent of paid maternity coverage, and to move on with my life. When I made the request to Tristan, he responded with, “Why is it my responsibility to support someone who is no longer my employee? I won’t let you hold money over my head.” I knew in that moment I had a choice to make: should I continue the fight with a lawsuit or walk away?
I held extreme anxiety over what the stress of the legal process would do to my body, and how that would affect the sweet little soul growing in my belly. I didn’t want my stress to affect his development—his fragility and innocence made me feel it was my responsibility to protect him. Everytime I felt the need to cry, my motherly strength would kick in like a protective shield of armor in an attempt to block him from my pain. I needed to emotionally process what was happening, but I wouldn’t let myself. My body and mind were in constant conflict. How was I supposed to stand up for myself and what I knew was right, while still protecting my unborn baby? I agonized over how to put my well-being before his.
I regularly asked myself: Can you be great at your job AND be a good mom?
I turned to my father for advice. An experienced businessman who is familiar with the legal system, his advice was straightforward: fight for what I deserve. He reminded me that I had the courage, strength, resilience and resources to fight this. I knew that I had to stand up to Tristan, so that he couldn’t go on to discriminate against others. I channeled my stress and anger into gratitude for the strength I possessed, and fueled it to fight this battle. My dad’s advice made me realize that I didn’t have to make a choice between my baby’s well-being and my own. However, fighting never felt good—it was constantly draining.
The months that followed were spent working my way through the legal process for the first time. It might as well have been a second job. Given Tristan’s behavior throughout the process, we were forced into arbitration. I didn’t fully understand what I was getting myself into. For the next six months it felt like we were making no progress.
I had always been a confident and motivated hard worker. After my termination, that confidence was almost gone. Even the smallest of decisions felt insurmountable. How I viewed myself, was flipped upside down. My self-esteem plummeted. It sent me into a situational depression that lasted for months, coupled with heavy stress and anxiety. It also manifested physically. I repeatedly complained of stomach aches, and would have to lie down in bed for hours.
In the months leading up to having my baby, I worked hard consulting. I was fortunate to find opportunities and earn some income. In May of 2018, I gave birth to my second son. While in the hospital, I was on my phone responding to emails, taking work calls, and trying to stay on top of my work load. I felt a desperate need to prove to myself and the world that having a baby and being a mother wasn’t going to slow me down or make me less capable.
When my baby was only a few months old, I had my deposition. Let’s just say that being deposed is not enjoyable. I spent eight hours in a small room with two lawyers across the table asking me the same questions over and over again in an attempt to intimidate me and catch me in a lie. I knew the truth, the facts were etched into my mind, yet the disingenuous, pointed questions that were flying across the table made me uneasy and scared. Much to their dismay, they didn’t catch any inconsistencies with my story. Regardless, I left feeling emotionally beaten down and physically exhausted.
When arbitration day came, I arrived early, and sat in my chair next to my attorney. Opposing counsel was seated across from us, with the judge presiding at the head of the room. Tristan hadn’t arrived. I remember looking at the judge and wondering what he thought of me. Did he think I was weak because of my position? Would appearing strong and confident help or hurt my case?
I heard heels, and the door swung open. In walked Tristan and his girlfriend, like Bonnie and Clyde walking into a bank. Remember, this is the girlfriend I’ve known since childhood. I was quite convinced during the past 9 month legal process that she wasn’t aware of our pregnancy discrimination lawsuit, but it was clear at that moment she was. This is a woman who sits atop her social media soapbox speaking as an advocate for women’s rights and equal pay in the workplace. Seeing her standing by his side in this context was hard to stomach. She glared at me from across the room, then turned to him, rubbing his back with a warm comforting smile and said, “Everything is going to be ok.” Tristan funded her life in many ways. He paid her rent, gym membership, gifted her designer bags, and paid for luxury vacations. This lawsuit could interfere with her lifestyle.
Throughout the multi-day arbitration, Tristan’s attorneys took every shot at trying to disprove my testimony. Their goal was to paint me as a disgruntled employee after vengeance. When Tristan took the stand, he lied about my performance, the clients and revenue I had secured and my work ethic.
Thankfully, there were four strong witnesses who attested to Tristan’s character and dishonesty.
There were bank statements, financial documents, business material evidence, along with expert witness testimony. Yet, when it came time for me to take the witness stand, his girlfriend left the room. She didn’t want to hear what I had to say.
Sitting on the stand, I was questioned by my attorney and opposing counsel—forced to relive my story and share the realities of how it affected my life. After speaking for an hour, the judge noticed my lip begin to quiver and my chest flushed red. I didn’t want to cry, I wanted to be strong. I did not want to be seen as a victim.
The judge generously requested we take a break so I could recompose myself. I walked quickly to the door, and swung it open to face his girlfriend sitting outside the room. Before I could stop myself, words exploded out of my mouth, “You clearly have no idea what the truth is here!” I was furious. Did she know? Even if she did, it didn’t matter. She’s an advocate for women and equal pay, yet there she sat supporting her man who fired a woman because she was pregnant.
A few months after the arbitration and countless sleepless nights wondering if it was all worth it, I got a call from my attorney. It was a cold evening in December, and I was walking into dinner with my family. I answered the call to hear the words, “Kiley, you won.” I burst into tears. All of my efforts weren’t for nothing—the hundreds of hours I spent on the lawsuit, the time in therapy, moments away from my children and husband, and all of the expenses it took to fight. But more importantly, an older, conservative judge found that I was discriminated against for being pregnant and awarded me restitution. It was validation that I was good at my job—that being a woman, a wife, pregnant, or a mother did not make me any less.
When I started this process back in January 2018, I didn’t think Tristan was a bad person. I had convinced myself that he had just made poor decisions and that inappropriate comments were minor slip-ups and not definitions of his character. I made excuses for him, having been brainwashed by his charm and charisma for the years prior. People around me tried to tell me that he was a con artist, a fraudster. As I started to see Tristan for who he really was, I began to remember how he often complained that parents made for lesser employees because they can’t stay late or travel as easily as non-parents, since they don’t have kids to deal with or to interfere with their job.
Looking back, I realize that he disguised himself as a Tony Robbins-loving, Marcus Aeuralius-reading guy who spoke about mindfulness and praised self-awareness to make himself look good. But it took me over a year to come to the conclusion on my own—that he wasn’t ever my friend, he wasn’t a good person who had lost his way, that he didn’t mean well. This was a person who had gone through life cheating, lying, and shortchanging others, all under a sparkly veneer.
Pregnancy discrimination has forever changed me. While the stomach aches, depression, and lack of confidence have faded, the anxiety and self-induced stress have not. I continue to work hard, but not with the same ease I used to. I know I have more work to do on myself. The trauma has turned into an insatiable drive, where often I physically can not make myself stop working. It’s an internal fight to pull myself away—my eyes will burn and I know I need to stop, but I fear that if I do, I’ll be viewed as falling short. On the other hand, I struggle as a mother feeling like I’m not doing enough to be there for my kids because I’m working. I see other parents joining field trips or taking their kids to swim lessons after school and long for the ability to do those things. I do my best most days to take my son to school in the morning, cook the boys dinner when I get home, and sit together to talk about their highs and lows of the day. We read stories before bed and I’m there to tuck them in. But there are many moments I miss everyday with my kids. This is the all-too-common struggle working mother’s face trying to find balance between a thriving career and being present at home.
While there have been many advancements for women in the workplace, we have a long road to travel still. In the 21st century, while working in one of the most pro-employee states, I was fired because I was pregnant. A blatant discriminatory action that made me question my skills, worth, and capabilities. I have pushed forward since, throwing everything I could into my career to move past what this monster put into my head. To prove to him and more importantly, myself, that I was and have always been capable. While this legal battle took a massive toll on me, I recognize how fortunate I am to be in a position to afford this fight. Countless woman who have faced discrimination forgo legal action because they don’t have the resources.
Now having started my own businesses, I work with and lead women everyday. I strive to support them in a way that I never was, because I know there’s nothing more important and empowering than motherhood. We must support women as they continue to fight discrimination, harassment, and unequal pay. And above all, we must encourage women to be true to themselves, and believe in their value—because becoming a mother does not diminish your worth, it adds to it. Motherhood is the reason we’re all here, after all.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.
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Kiley- thanks so much for sharing your story- I’m sure every woman and mom out there can relate in part to your story of working for a faux ally to women. I personally had a boss who discriminated against me but would brag about attending the womens’ march to coworkers. It was so maddening to see someone claim to be a feminist so superficially.
Not every woman has the resource or even the solid case to take their claim to court but I am glad that you did and that you won. It is illegal what your boss did, and the more cases like yours that are won will only reinforce that to others.