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Downshifted After the Baby

It's a working mother's nightmare: You return from maternity leave to find that a colleague has taken over your biggest account. Or that your boss now excludes you from meetings.

Unfortunately, such situations are all too real. These days, thanks to employment discrimination laws, it's rare for employers to fire a woman for becoming pregnant. But there are more subtle forms of discrimination. New moms may find they no longer have important responsibilities, their boss reneges on a promised promotion, or colleagues just take them less seriously now that they're parents.

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employers are required to give workers the same or an equivalent job after family leave. That means the same pay and comparable responsibilities. But many companies still don't do that. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that of the 10,000-plus complaints it's received since the FMLA was enacted in 1993, 44 percent are from people who say their employers failed to give them a comparable job when they returned from leave.

Short of filing a lawsuit -- which is expensive and difficult, since this sort of allegation is sometimes tough to prove -- how can you eliminate the discrimination? Most experts agree: Confront your employer. But how you handle that conversation is critical.

Talk as if you assume the best. Don't approach your boss in an accusatory manner. "Convey that you believe she's acting in good faith," says Ellen Bravo, executive director of 9to5, the National Association of Working Women. "Then she'll be more likely to respond positively."

Mention how much you'd loved your job and had looked forward to returning. Then say, "I'm not sure how or why this happened, but I haven't been given an equivalent job." If there are any family-friendly initiatives at your company, gently remind her of them.

Be specific about how your job has been diminished. When the director of information technology at a Washington, DC, consulting firm complained after she returned from maternity leave last year that a co-worker had edged in on her turf, she was told she was being silly. "My boss said, 'He just has some good ideas. You should welcome them,'" says the director, who is the mother of a 1-year-old and 5-year-old.

Describe in objective terms how your job has changed. Instead of saying you think a colleague has usurped your responsibilities, for instance, explain that you've been excluded from meetings you used to attend, and if possible, draw a direct link between the change and your compensation. A lower income is the clearest indication that your job isn't comparable, and is difficult to dispute.

Be realistic. You may not be able to have exactly the same job back. In your absence, your boss may have decided to reassign everyone's duties. Or a client may want your maternity leave substitute to finish a project she started when you were out. Suggest that your supervisor give you other assignments to fill the void, and try to set a deadline for that to occur.

But what if your boss fails to respond? If you're covered by the FMLA, you can call the U.S. Department of Labor; if the department believes there's been a violation, it will call your employer. Most such complaints are resolved successfully with just one call.

If you aren't covered by the FMLA or by a similar state law, or you don't want to involve governmental authorities, then you have to decide whether you're willing to threaten to quit. The information-technology director decided that she was. A few months after her leave, she told her supervisor that she didn't want the situation to continue. And it didn't. Her boss quickly looked into the problem and made sure that no one threatened her position. In an economy with the lowest unemployment rate in decades, employees often have more leverage than they think.

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