Parental Leave and Pregnancy Discrimination in Women’s Sports

A look at where we are and where we go from here.

By Johanna Modak

Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir, formerly of Olympique Lyonnais (Villar Lopez/Pool via AP, File)

Although it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, the past few weeks have brought a disappointing onslaught of pregnancy or parental leave discrimination cases to the forefront of women’s sports news. 

First, Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir released an article with the Players’ Tribune, called What Happened When I Got Pregnant detailing the reality of how she was treated by her former club, Olympique Lyonnais, throughout her pregnancy and maternity leave. 

Upon announcing her pregnancy, Gunnarsdóttir returned to Iceland to be near her family and doctors, only to slowly realize she was no longer receiving pay. After attempting to track down her paycheck, she found that it was being withheld and that she may need to get FIFA involved. She was told by the general manager, Vincent Ponsot, that if she went to FIFA she would have “no future with Lyon at all.”

Despite the unrest between Gunnarsdóttir and the front office, she returned to training after the birth of her child and was met with a slew of new concerns. Her newborn was not welcome on away trips even though he was still breastfeeding. She was asked first to leave him behind, and when she disagreed, was told they could have two “test” trips to see how he did. Who was going to decide whether this baby had passed or failed the travel test? What does “successful” baby travel even look like? 

Surely, you would think this situation had come up before, but Gunnarsdóttir realized she was an unintentional pioneer for the club figuring out how to deal with pregnancy and moms on the team. Eventually, Gunnarsdóttir won the landmark case and FIFA forced Olympique Lyonnais to give her the full salary she should have earned during her pregnancy. Gunnarsdóttir acknowledged that the victory was significant, not just for her small family but for the future of players in the league. She is happy, enjoying her one year old and playing with Juventus, but she didn’t escape the experience without damage. She went through a time that she had expected to be a beautiful time in her family feeling as if she had done something wrong. “This should have been the happiest moment of my life,” she said. “They always made me feel like it was a negative thing that I had a baby.”

Now, let’s turn our attention to the WNBA. Just a few days after Gunnarsdóttir released her article, the Las Vegas Aces traded Dearica Hamby, who is currently pregnant, to the LA Sparks. She immediately released a statement alleging discrimination that began after the announcement of her pregnancy. She quotes leadership at the Aces referring to her as “a question mark” and questioning her commitment to the team based on the timeline of her pregnancy. They inquired about the nature of her child’s conception, and when she replied that it had not been planned, her professionalism was brought into question. She, appropriately, ended her statement with acknowledgment of the particular disappointment she felt in being treated this way after the WNBA had specifically made historic improvements in their collective bargaining agreement (CBA) to include fully-paid maternity leave. 

Dearica Hamby, formerly of the Aces (AP Photo/Darryl Webb, File)

Like Gunnarsdóttir, Hamby’s mistreatment has resulted in an investigation which is now underway. This is likely to be a similarly impactful investigation, setting the precedent for teams down the line, because it marks the first major accusation of discrimination under the new CBA.  

A third big story in pregnancy-based discrimination came just three days after Dearica Hamby released her statement, when Boston Marathoner Fiona English posted an open letter to the Boston Marathon detailing her inability to secure a refund and retain her qualification when she was unable to run due to pregnancy. She is expected to give birth two days before the April 2023 race, and was hopeful that, after a lifetime of chipping away at her marathon time and finally qualifying, she could defer. The Boston Marathon has a strict no deferment policy, no exceptions. English argues that giving birth seems to be a pretty valid reason to defer, and should not cause her to lose all of the hard work that she did to qualify. The Boston Marathon has responded by changing their strict policy to allow for pregnant and postpartum runners to defer. 

The quick succession of these three incidents certainly painted a disappointing picture of the current obstacles athlete mothers must navigate. But, although it offers little comfort, it is true that quite often these cases of mistreatment have been massively influential in creating policy change.

We’ve seen this in several high profile cases over the past few years. Serena Williams, prior to giving birth, was ranked No. 1 in the world. Upon returning to tennis, she was told she was ranked by the Women’s Tennis Association as 453rd. SERENA WILLIAMS. Ranking affects who you play early on in the tournament, so this was a huge competitive disadvantage when her only offense had been to have a baby. Thanks to public outcry on her behalf, now if an athlete takes parental leave, they have rank protection. 

In the 2021 Olympic Games, restrictions were placed on family members attending. Breastfeeding mom and Canadian basketball player Kim Gaucher pointed out that not being able to bring her child meant forcing her to choose between parenting the way she wanted by maintaining breastfeeding and participating in the Olympics, which was a lifelong dream. 

And, of course, there is track superstar Allyson Felix’s story. When Nike docked her sponsorship surrounding her pregnancy, she spoke out. Their relationship ended, but the general public was furious. Nike changed their policy and Felix used her anger to fuel the development of a free childcare service initiative for athlete moms. 

So policy changes are being made, but they are largely reactive and driven by public outcry. But couldn’t there be a better, more proactive way to handle the needs of athlete mothers without requiring them to go through hell first? What might that look like?

To start, Alex Morgan has a few ideas. 

Morgan knows a bit about the challenges of being a mom and a professional soccer player at the highest level. And, while the NWSL certainly doesn’t have it all figured out yet, fully-paid maternity leave was a part of their first ever CBA, signed last year. Racing Louisville also started a positive trend within the league of offering fertility services to their players. The Chicago Red Stars and Portland Thorns have followed suit. Becky Sauerbrunn, defender for the USWNT and Portland Thorns spoke on the Podcast Snacks about the concerns that athletes in the NWSL face in thinking about timing their pregnancies. Especially for soccer players who also participate at the international level, if they don’t want to miss an Olympic year or a World Cup year, the timing has to be pretty perfect. Giving players the option to freeze eggs and have a bit more control over their fertility takes away at least one layer of this anxiety for some.

The PHF is another league providing fully-paid maternity leave for players, showing that the trend at the league level is moving in the right direction. But, as Morgan and Gunnarsdóttir both point out, there are other logistics to being a mom who needs to travel for her profession that need to be sorted out. Athletes Unlimited is setting the standard in this category, offering not only fully-paid parental leave (plus bonuses), but childcare and breastfeeding support as well. 

So where do we go from here? First, there needs to be some kind of workaround for salary caps when a player on the roster becomes pregnant. Teams should not be put in the position of choosing between fielding a winning team and mistreatment of a mom-to-be. Next, we need to see proactive support of players and athletes who want to be parents. The overlap of athletic prime and reproductive prime is predictable, so we need to stop acting surprised! Proactive support of players means anticipating the possibility of pregnancy and having resources to provide things like separate rooms and childcare for away games, breastfeeding support, and of course, fully-paid leave. 

We want to see the responsibility placed less on individual players to share about their mistreatment and more on the teams and leagues to enact proactive policy change from the start. Motherhood is an inextricable part of women’s sports, and it’s time for more of the people in power to start acting like it.

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