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Penn Law alumna works to protect pregnant and women’s rights in PA

June 07, 2018

Margaret Zhang L’15 works as a legal fellow at the Women’s Law Project advocating for pregnant and breastfeeding women in PA workplaces, schools, and prisons. She spoke to Penn Law about her work. 

Penn Law (PL): Tell us about your fellowship, including where you’re working, the problems that you’re responding to, and the goals of your project.

Margaret Zhang (MZ): I work at the Women’s Law Project (WLP), a non-profit public interest law firm with offices in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Throughout its history, WLP has worked to eliminate sex discrimination through policy advocacy, high-impact litigation, and community education. My fellowship focuses on advocacy for three categories of pregnant and breastfeeding women in Pennsylvania: workers, students, and incarcerated women. The current legal protections for all of these women are complicated, often inadequate, and essential to advance and to protect.

In the workplace, pregnant and breastfeeding women routinely face discrimination. That discrimination is sometimes subtle: Pregnant women regularly lose their jobs because their employers refuse to grant their requests for medically necessary job modifications, such as a chair in the workplace, regular access to water, or help with heavy lifting. After childbirth, women’s employers may refuse to give them necessary break time to express breast milk, which harms their ability to continue breastfeeding their babies.

Pregnant and breastfeeding students face similar challenges. Schools may exclude these students from educational activities, refuse to accommodate their pregnancies or their breastfeeding needs, or punish them for taking medically necessary leave after childbirth.

Finally, the problems facing incarcerated pregnant and breastfeeding women are myriad. Incarcerated women often have high-risk pregnancies due to a history of inadequate prenatal care and poor nutrition. In prison, their access to adequate care is inconsistent, often resulting in miscarriage, preterm birth, and poor birth outcomes, including neonatal death. Postpartum care is similarly inadequate, as is care for opiate-‍addicted women who need specialized medical treatment.

I respond to these injustices by educating women and their medical providers about the laws; advocating for better state laws, such as the Pennsylvania Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (HB1583) and the Workplace Accommodations for Nursing Mothers Act (HB2061); and advising and representing women with employment discrimination claims. To assist pregnant and breastfeeding students, I work alongside community agencies who support them, I travel to area schools to educate them about the laws, and I am available to advise and represent students who wish to file a complaint against their school. I also educate incarcerated pregnant and breastfeeding women about their rights and am available to provide legal representation as needed.

PL: How did your experiences before and during law school lead you to this project or public interest generally?

MZ: I owe much of my dedication to public service to my first job after college, as an AmeriCorps member at Public Allies, a national organization dedicated to cultivating young people’s service and leadership skills and character. At Public Allies, I served for ten months at Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS), a refugee resettlement agency in New Haven, Connecticut. I particularly remember helping newly arrived pregnant refugees obtain healthcare, and arranging for volunteers to help them communicate with their care providers during pregnancy and childbirth.

My experiences in law school continued to draw me toward public service on behalf of pregnant and breastfeeding women. Through the Custody and Support Assistance Clinic (CASAC), I regularly assisted low-income pregnant and nursing women who not only had to plan for and care for a newborn, but also had to deal with custody disputes with abusive former partners. Meanwhile, my internship at the Philadelphia Commission for Human Relations and my litigation courses at Penn Law showed me that administrative and judicial action can help rectify violations of pregnant and breastfeeding women’s rights, but that these processes take time and provide retrospective relief at best.

Finally, my own experience as a pregnant woman and breastfeeding mother is another reason why I am dedicated to my work at the Women’s Law Project. I was lucky to have an easy pregnancy during my third year of law school and, later, an employer who accommodated the break times I needed to express breast milk. Yet even as a privileged law school graduate, I still encountered challenges: resistance to a breastfeeding accommodation from bar exam administrators, childcare expenses that equaled my housing expenses, and the day-to-day challenges of juggling a newborn’s medical, physical, and emotional needs with my workplace demands. Together with my past professional experiences, my personal experiences make me passionate about—and grateful for the opportunity to—work to ensure that pregnant and breastfeeding women, in all walks of life, can prepare for and care for their newborns with the legal and social supports they need.

PL: Thus far, what accomplishment during your fellowship are you most proud of?

MZ: I am most proud of the opportunities I have each day to make pregnant and breastfeeding women’s lives even a little bit easier: when I am able to equip a community case worker with the information she needs to get a school accommodation for a pregnant student, when I equip clients with legal information to help them negotiate a workplace accommodation, and—most of all—when I speak to clients and I am able to help them through a difficult and stressful time in their lives.