School Forced to Pay Up After Failing Grad Student Because She Was Pregnant

pregnantWe've heard plenty of stories about pregnant women being discriminated against in the workplace, but one recent story features such blatant prejudice against an expectant college student that the corresponding lawsuit resulted in a nearly $850,000 payout -- and the mom on the receiving end of that cash absolutely deserves every penny!


A federal appeals court has decided to uphold the $848,690 judgment awarded to Tina Varlesi, a former social work student at Wayne State University, on the basis that she was discriminated against during an internship at the Salvation Army -- and considering the experience prevented her from graduating, this seems like fair compensation. 

Varlesi was in her final year of studying for a master's degree in social work when she was required to acquire "field experience" in the form of an internship. She had also become pregnant earlier that year, and had been recently left by her fiancé. Varlesi was hired for an internship at the Salvation Army working with men with substance abuse problems, and as soon as she got there, her (female) supervisor made an issue out of her pregnancy.

According to the court ruling, the supervisor (who was not a licensed social worker, something supposedly forbidden by the school's policies) "addressed her obvious pregnancy immediately, ordering her not to drive after dark or in bad weather, questioning her marital status and living arrangements and announcing that though she had 'had relations' with someone, the men at the rehab 'can look but they cannot touch.'" When the supervisor's comments continued, Varlesi filed a complaint with the university, but they were of little help: During a meeting with school administrators, the supervisor explained that she told Varlesi to wear looser clothing and "stop rubbing her belly," as it allegedly "excited" the men in the program -- and outrageously, the administrators agreed that yes, Varlesi should wear looser clothing!

More from The Stir: 10 Rights of Every Pregnant Working Woman

Even worse, Varlesi was given a failing grade in the internship, which meant she couldn't graduate. And when she filed a formal complaint with Wayne State, they denied it, stating that the School of Social Work had investigated the case already (during the trial, social work school Dean Phyllis Vroom admitted that this was not true).

It's just completely outrageous, and I'm so thrilled that Varlesi won her lawsuit. This is a particularly disturbing case of pregnancy-related discrimination because it took place in a higher-level education setting, a place that should be promoting a higher level of ethics and morals. And at a school of social work! What does it say about our society when a school that's supposed to be training people how to be compassionate toward people like single working mothers would treat a single working mother this way?

More from The Stir: Woman Says She Was Fired for Being Pregnant ... by Her Boss Who's a Woman

They haven't seen the error of their ways yet, either. But at least Wayne State's appeal was denied, and some measure of justice has been served. Unfortunately, that doesn't take away from the fact that this kind of outright sexism still happens, even in the places where you'd least expect it. We still have a long, long way to go.  


Image via Christian Glatz/Flickr

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