Today the Guardian reported on a survey conducted by law firm Slater and Gordon which indicated that 40% of employers were wary of employing women of childbearing age, hiring mothers or putting someone they knew was already a mother in a senior role.
No big surprises there for any woman who has ever worked.
The idea that we live in an era of equality when it comes to the workplace is a complete fallacy. Sex discrimination is alive and well, taking many different forms, but one of the most obvious and pervasive of these is almost certainly related to a woman’s decision to have children.
I use the word ‘decision’ deliberately as there are many who argue that women have no right to complain as it is their decision to have children and they should accept the consequences and not expect their employer to ‘foot the bill’ while they laze around on maternity enjoying the fruits of that decision.
To deride the natural impulse to procreate as a ‘decision’ in a manner which implies it is as frivolous and as selfish as bunking off work to go to Glastonbury (which I have known almost as many people to do with none of the derision from co-workers) is overly simplistic, unhelpful and quite frankly stupid.
Firstly, it is not just women involved in the decision to have children – anyone over the age of about 12 knows that. Clearly in a natural birth (i.e. Not adoption or surrogacy) it’s the woman who carries, gives birth to and often feeds the baby so of course she is going to need at least some time to stay home and will often choose to stay at home longer to bond with the baby. But she didn’t start that process on her own and shouldn’t be in some way blamed as if she has ‘decided’ to go through 9 months of pregnancy, hours of excruciating labour and months of sleepless nights purely to have a bit of a break from work and wilfully piss off her employer.
Secondly, if the only way it is acceptable for women to be employed by businesses concerned with the impact of maternity leave and parenthood is to refuse to have children altogether, who do these businesses think they are going to employ in twenty or thirty years time when their current workforce have retired leaving behind no offspring to take over? That people in our communities have children is not selfish. It is not just a nice thing to do. It is not even simply important. It is vital, and we all have a stake in those children being raised well, whether we choose to have them ourselves or not.
As well as the issues faced by employers, the comments on the article are littered with damning anecdotal evidence from other employees, all along the lines of ‘I work with a woman who has kids/went on maternity leave and I ended up having to do all her work, the selfish lazy cow’ or words to that effect.
In my life pre-parenthood I was an incredibly diligent worker and prided myself in never taking time off work. Often this pride was misguided as it probably meant I dragged my germs in and affected other people, or stumbled about my workplace inefficiently for two weeks rather than spending one day in bed and coming back on top form. Regardless, I never missed a day, worked bloody hard and was naively proud of it. At times I would notice that other colleagues seemed to take a fair few days off work and feel aggrieved. When they were off for the third or fourth time with their child, rather than thinking ‘poor kid, that must be a nightmare’ I’d begin to assume they weren’t that unwell and silently tell the mum/dad to toughen up and just send her kid in to school or nursery. Little did I realise then that little kids get sick a lot, and when kids are sick, they are really sick – snot everywhere, projectile vomit down the walls, pus filled pox bursting every time they move. Even if you could bring yourself to abandon the snivelling wretches for the day, there’s no way in the world any childcare or school would take them – they’re trying to protect other children, and therefore other parents and workplaces, from the same fate.
Now I’m a mum I dread illness and the inevitable ‘Whose day at work is more important? How long will it last? Is there anyone else we could call if it lasts? If we wrap him up will the childminder even notice?’ conversations which take place the moment the illness is discovered. Whining colleagues who think parents are skiving off work don’t see the agonising faces pulled while trying to negotiate interim childcare. They don’t see parents running between bottles of Calpol and laptops as we try desperately to keep on top of things while we’re at home. They don’t feel the hideous guilt that comes when you realise that, because of these perceptions of mums not being as good workers, you’re more worried about what you’re missing at work than you are about your own ill child. Perverse but sadly true.
But we have to worry, because there will always be someone you work with who has an ‘I worked with a mum who wasn’t very good at her job therefore I don’t like working with mums’ attitude, which is not only discriminatory and offensive, it is also downright moronic! I have worked with countless men, both fathers and childless, who have been lazy, arrogant, work shy, all-talk-no-action-because-I’m-too-busy-climbing-the-career-ladder, or just no bloody good at their job, but that doesn’t mean I tar all my male colleagues with the same brush. Some people work hard at their job, others take the piss – it doesn’t automatically correlate with gender or whether or not you’ve had children. If you assume it does that’s discrimination, pure and simple.
According to these managers’ perceptions, I’ll be worse at my job now than I was before maternity leave. Ignore the fact that I’m older and wiser. Ignore the fact that trying to get all your housework done in the space of a one hour nap time teaches you how to be a million times more efficient than a day’s time management CPD could ever do. Ignore the fact that I returned to work desperate to throw myself back into it after a year of mental stagnation singing 5 little ducks ten times a day. Ignore the fact that I work bloody harder than most of my childless colleagues because I know that I have to prove myself more than they ever do. Oh, and the fact that they stay until 7pm while I leave at 5 does not mean they work harder or better than me, it means they work longer. It’s not the same thing.
I’m not oblivious to the problems employers and colleagues of working parents face and clearly my viewpoint is extremely biased. I can see that maternity leave is a major financial and logistical challenge for employers and there is always that worry that the mother may not come back at the end of it (though literally everyone I know did go back). I understand it must be frustrating for women who have chosen to focus solely on their career and not have children to know that they are being judged by a set of criteria which doesn’t even apply to them. These are all problems relating to the employment of working mums, and in many ways working dads. But they are not problems caused by working mums and dads.
We all have a right to work. We all have a right to have children. We have a duty to do both of these things to the best of our ability. If you don’t think these things are currently working well together, change the system, lobby the government, do something about it. Don’t just blame, deride and discriminate against women and working mums; nothing good will ever come of that.