The never-ending churn of stories explaining why it is awful to be a woman has a new focus. A survey of workplace ‘decision-makers’ published this week has exposed the shocking news that some employers think maternity leave can be a bit inconvenient. That’s right: some sexist and uncaring bosses do not feel delight when mum-to-be announces her plans but instead worry about the impact on the bottom line.
A poll conducted for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has revealed that almost 60 per cent of employers think a woman applying for a job should disclose whether she is pregnant. Of the 1,106 male and female 'decision-makers' surveyed, 46 per cent think it is reasonable, during a recruitment process, to ask women if they have young children and 36 per cent think they should be able to ask if she plans to start a family. Just under half of those asked think women should be employed by the same company for at least a year before taking maternity leave and about one third believe that women who become pregnant are 'generally less interested in career progression'.
The EHRC proclaims that its survey exposes the prevalence of 'antiquated beliefs' and is proof that 'when it comes to the rights of pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace, we are still living in the dark ages'. It wants companies to sign up to its new Working Forward campaign to end pregnancy and maternity discrimination.
But the survey tells us little about the extent of discrimination in practice. Employers can think and believe what they like: it’s what they do that counts. Working mothers and mothers-to-be have more rights and protections today than ever before. Your boss might think working mothers are a burden but if you can take maternity leave, return to work, work flexibly and go on to secure a promotion then who cares what anyone thinks?
Significantly, EHRC surveyed only private companies. A woman taking a year’s maternity leave will have far more impact in a small business than in a large public sector corporation. If you employ just four workers and have deadlines to meet in the next twelve months then losing a quarter of your team can cause problems – and we need to be honest about this. It’s not outrageous to suggest, as 41 per cent of those polled do, that pregnancy can put 'an unnecessary cost burden' on the workplace. Having to find a suitably qualified replacement, happy to work for only a year, can be difficult. It’s surprising that only 44 per cent of employers say women who have had more than one child while in the same job can be a 'burden' to their team.
Such attitudes hardly represent a return to bad old days. Over a century ago, the 1911 National Insurance Act granted a one off maternity allowance of 30 shillings to insured women. However, right up to the 1970s women were still routinely sacked for being pregnant. The right to paid maternity leave became a key demand of second wave feminists and, thanks to their efforts, the first legislation enshrining the rights of working mothers came into effect in 1975. This was not widely taken up because it required women to be in work for several years before they qualified for paid leave and many women still left work altogether once pregnant. In 1999, six months paid maternity leave became available to all working women although in practice many returned to work sooner. This was a great victory for campaigners.
In 2006, maternity leave was extended from six to nine months, with employees able to request an additional three months on top. This increase was motivated not just by women’s rights but by a growing concern to give babies the best start in life – which new mums are told requires lots of bonding and at least six months of breastfeeding. With women concerned that what happens in the first few months of life will determine their child’s future health, wealth and intelligence, a year long maternity leave has rapidly become the norm. Add on holiday entitlement accrued while on maternity leave and women can easily be off work for 13 months or more.
Maternity leave was a hard won right and one that continues to be vitally important for working women. But we should be able to have an honest conversation about the advantages and disadvantages of maternity leave for both women and employers. Whether we like it or not, businesses exist to make a profit. If they fail they employ no one. The balance between making a profit and protecting employees’ rights should be open for discussion; writing off all concerns about maternity leave as a return to the 'dark ages' does no one any favours.
For women who are focused on their careers, even those who work for enlightened and progressive employers, taking a full year away from work, perhaps two or three times in a decade, can mean missing out on relevant experience, new developments in the industry and opportunities for promotion. A perverse consequence of outlawing conversations about pregnancy-plans is that bosses might work on the assumption that all young women are about to take successive maternity leaves. If women are to be free to make the choices that are best for them and their families then no conversations should be off limits.