Personal: Workplace Discrimination Never Ends

I never expected to be discriminated against because of my son’s autism diagnosis

It makes me sound sheltered to say that I was not expecting to face direct discrimination at the workplace due to my son’s autism diagnosis. Why would I, in all fairness, be discriminated against because of my child? My child doesn’t come to work with me.

When I disclosed my son’s disability to my boss, I thought I was opening the conversation up so we could navigate how I could balance my work expectations with my life expectations.

I was wrong.

I thought these sorts of conversations were normal to have with a boss or a manager, as the previous company I worked for, did have these conversations with me. I happened to have been hired at my previous company six-months pregnant. I believed I was working in an industry that creative, smart, driven people collaborated in to change the world.

I was naive.

Saying those two words makes me feel shame. I am ashamed. I should have protected myself better. I should have seen it coming. I should have known.

But I didn’t.

I trusted that the world was a good place. And the world reminded me how toxic it can be. As a woman who has worked in the medical and scientific professions for nearly twenty years, I am no stranger to discrimination and harassment. So, in reality, I should have been better prepared.

I’ve been bullied, gas-lighted, and generally had to fight for my rights since I began working.  

I was sexually harassed by two of my bosses when I worked in the medical field, one of which fired me when I did not sleep with him (or, in his terms, “blend energies with”).  When I began my career as an analytical chemist, I was told by one of my study directors that I should go back home and raise my baby, not come to the lab every day. To quote him as he was leaning over my shoulder looking at my lab bench, “Woman’s job is home with the baby”.

To me, though it’s not something anyone wants to hear, what I experienced was not unique. It is nothing new. This does not make me stand out against the crowd. I am with the crowd because of it.  Women face harassment in the workforce every day.  We get underpaid, undervalued, and overlooked by our male peers.

To be a woman in the workforce is to know you have to be prepared to go to battle. I was not initially prepared for the battle that I would face for eleven weeks at a new job. I was not discriminated against because of my gender, my education level, or my title but because I had disclosed to my new boss that my son was autistic.

How genuinely naive of me to have disclosed that in the first place, I know. Openness is my personal style. I did not think twice about the impact disclosing our family’s struggles would have on my career. How could I anticipate it creating a toxic work environment for me? I simply did not think it was possible.

I know I would not have left my old job for a new job if I had known what we were facing with my youngest son’s needs. I was not prepared for the diagnosis of autism when we received it the week I took off between my old job and my new one. I had taken the week to get caught up at home – to get everyone to their doctors and dentists appointments.

One of the appointments we had for our youngest was an evaluation with our regional center for what we assumed would be for speech services. We ended up getting told the speech was part of a larger picture for our son.

That day began the long process of appointments, assessments, tests, reports; more places that needed assessments; more reports; more diagnosis; more time spent juggling the when and how and what my son needed.  

I was handling all of this while I was in the process of learning my new job.

I had a particularly bad meeting with my boss one morning. He had given me a 9 o’clock meeting to go over things he found frustrating about my work. One of the things he was upset about was the fact I was not bringing enough work home with me at the end of the day.

I hate to admit it, but I cry at work sometimes. I don’t cry out of embarrassment or sadness – I cry when I’m extremely frustrated or angry. I had walked into work after a particularly challenging morning with my son. Drop off at preschool had resulted in him throwing himself on the ground and banging his head repeatedly on the floor. It was hard to walk away from him, praying his teachers could work with him to calm down. I had left that to walk into a disastrous meeting at work.

So, at my wits’ end, completely burnt-out by the world’s expectations of me, I burst into tears. My boss did not know what to do or say and sat there awkwardly. I apologized to him as I gained composure. I told him I had a really challenging morning with my son, who was autistic, and that our family was going through a lot at the moment, so my tolerance for criticism at work was particularly low. His only response was to ask me if I had people to help me with that.

People to help me with that? No, we didn’t have people to ‘help us with that’.

After that meeting, I began to experience an escalation of harassment and gas-lighting behavior from this man. All niceties were removed. He found fault with everything I did: I either worked too many hours or too little. I couldn’t make a graph to his satisfaction. He’d pull me into intense meetings where he’d berate my data. He consciously sought to break me down and force me to question myself as a scientist.

At one point, he sent me an e-mail at 10:30 pm, detailing everything I had ever done that was not to his satisfaction. He ended his e-mail by telling me he expected me to not take sick time off for my son’s appointments or needs.

Listen, it’s not illegal to be a horrible boss. It’s not illegal to not get along with your boss or for your boss to not get along with you. It is, however, illegal to tell you that you aren’t allowed to use your sick time.

Despite all of this, I kept trying with him. I kept showing up, I kept working. I kept juggling my son’s needs with my job’s expectations. Despite the continued harassment from my manager, I was determined to push through it.

“I didn’t hire you to have a son with issues.”

Those exact words came out of my manager’s mouth during one of his (growing more regular) 9 o’clock meetings to yell at me for not being as perfect as he was in the lab. I was stunned into silence that he even thought to bring my son into the equation. My son wasn’t doing the extractions, my son wasn’t presenting the data. He made it very clear before I left that meeting that he was seeking ways to fire me.

The next week, I was working in the lab and he came in and fired me on the spot without informing HR.  I was told to drop everything and leave immediately. It was done in a manner as if I had poured acid on someone’s head or shouted racist remarks.  I left without gathering my personal belongings and waited for HR to call me. They didn’t. This happened on a Friday.

He wanted me to no show on Monday so he could have grounds to fire me.

I showed up at HR’s office with a folder of documentation I had been keeping since the harassment began. HR was unprepared for everything I disclosed to them. I had e-mails documenting his harassment, his denial to meet with me when requested, and him stating I was not to use my sick time for my son. I had kept a journal with dates and times when he said inappropriate things to me. When I told them what he said about my son they cut me off and immediately apologized.

Apparently, they had been informed he was seeking to let me go. They were trying to find placement for me within the company in another department. I told them that would not be possible. My manager wasn’t a middle-tier manager. He was the director of the entire analytical platform at the company. My boss was one step down from the VP.

I made it clear I wanted a severance for what I had experienced, indicating I was prepared to go to litigation if needed.  I was completely worn down and exhausted from the entire 11-week ordeal, I was not prepared nor did I want to, go through the struggles of a lawsuit.  The HR team and the company did not need to know that.

The next day, they offered me a 4-week severance, which is “industry standard”.  I refused, and they came back and gave me a 6-week severance. One of the stipulations I made when I signed a non-disclosure agreement (thus, no company name, no location, no proof this happened on the Internet) was my manager was required to go through some sort of training to understand he cannot discriminate against people who have children with disabilities.

After all this happened, some would assume I’d have told fewer people about my son’s diagnosis and kept it within our family more tightly.  I haven’t. If anything, this experience has taught me to be more firm about my son’s needs and to prioritize him first. The fact that I spent 11 weeks trying to please a boss who would not comprehend the importance of my son over my work really solidified to me where I want my future employment to align.  No one should be forced to work in an environment where the employer makes disparaging remarks about your disabled child, nor be unable and unwilling to work with you regarding navigating their care and your job.

I don’t think I would have walked away from my career to take care of my son’s needs.  Had I been working in a more standard work environment, my husband and I would have been able to steer the extremely stressful aspects of getting therapies on-board for our son.  However, I am eternally thankful that the “silver lining” of this entire nightmare allowed me to be at home for my son right now. He has blossomed with mom around and I get to be present during all of his appointments – which allows me to be the best mom I can be for him.

I am not foolish enough to believe I’ll never encounter some form of discrimination again.  I’m not foolish to think that my son will never face discrimination again as he grows up. The world doesn’t operate that way.  However, I can hope that as I navigate his childhood with him, we’ll become better prepared to face the challenges that our future will hold.


Jessica Means View All →

My professional background in biotechnology as a research chemist and as a veterinary technician has allowed me to have experienced two vastly different fields and for that I am thankful. In both careers, I have mentored, encouraged, and developed talent.

As a mother of two (a daughter and a son), I’m a self-proclaimed backyard chicken guru and someone who has “foster failed” nearly all the animals currently running the household. Oh, and I maintain a husband in my spare time.

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