Patricia Hewitt is concerned that pregnant women are being
victimised and has asked the EOC to investigate. But what about the poor
employers who have to tip-toe through this minefield and the non-pregnant
employees who have to carry the workload?
My friend liked and respected her manager during the three months she had
been working as a secretary. Then she found she was pregnant – an accident.
Upon informing her boss, the manager flew into a rage, shouted about how
inconvenient it was and demanded she get an abortion. My friend decided to
The personnel director slunk by a few days later, asked why she was
departing so soon, and as the colour drained from his face, promptly offered
some hush-up money. My friend reckons she’ll be fine: her boyfriend has a good
job. Looking back on it now, she finds the episode grimly funny – a case study
in the pathology of corporate commitment. The manager, naturally, was a woman
with four kids of her own.
Patricia Hewitt is right to be worried. There is something about conception
that can cause even competent managers to lose it. Finding lurid instances of
victimisation is probably the easiest investigation the Equal Opportunities
Commission has ever been asked to complete.
Doubtless a panel of worthies will decide that a careless misogyny is the
by-product of our culture of dedication to work. The story the EOC will want to
tell is that pregnancy continues to be treated like a disease. At one end of
the spectrum are cases of outright victimisation, such as that suffered by
Carol Bonehill, whose P45, enclosed so touchingly inside a congratulations
card, triggered Hewitt’s concern. More widespread are the complaints of
ostracism, lack of promotion, change of salary terms, being placed on the
"mummy track", downgraded appraisals. The maternity stigma means women
often time conception according to the employment rights they have acquired.
But if this is the only conclusion drawn by the investigation, it will be a
cop-out. For truthfully explaining attitudes to maternity involves tip-toeing
into some difficult territory.
First, let us agree that the above complaints are a significant problem. It
is certainly time tribunals upped the miserly compensation they award in
victimisation cases. While theoretically uncapped, about £7,500 is good for the
low paid; higher awards would guarantee publicity. Second, let us concur that
the curse/joy of childcare falls very unfairly between the sexes. Men get away
with things – as has been their chief historical characteristic. This is sad.
But it is not primarily an employment issue.
But having said all that, can we also admit that for a sizeable proportion
of women, having a family – a life-changing event – really does transform
attitudes to work? Assuming all women prioritise work to a consistent degree
throughout their lives is sheer nonsense. There will be some who are less
committed than they were before having a child – amazed, perhaps, that they
ever cared quite so much about their jobs in the first place.
Many women, whether full time or part time, may find that once they are
expected to shoulder the main burden of childcare, they are grateful to ease
off on the amount of effort they put into work. Familial exhaustion is one
reason; a conscious reassessment of priorities is another. Some would rather
not be working at all, but they need the money or they (correctly) suspect they
should try to keep their options open.
The fact is maternity is impossible to generalise about. For every textbook
pregnancy, there is a nine-month ordeal of morning sickness, complications and
antenatal appointments. For every model tot, there is a sickly jackanapes. One
woman may be off for no more than two weeks. Another may be away stretching
definitions of part-time for years on end. To some women, offering a backseat
for a while is the kindest, most sensible, most flexible thing an employer can
do. To others, it would merely squander their talent and discriminate against
Maternity places employers in a profoundly tricky position. Not only must
they never make assumptions about an employee’s wishes, but there is also the
relationship with other workers to worry about. A pregnancy normally means an
on-going commitment from colleagues to work harder. About no other
discrimination or equality issue can this be said.
Much of modern work no longer functions principally by time: what you
produce matters far more than how long it takes to do something. Employers need
people they can rely on to see a job through when necessary. Parents (mostly
mothers) cannot be relied on because babies’ schedules are not flexible. The
result is that the childless end up carrying the child-rearing.
The law has yet to wake up to the potential for discrimination against the
childless. It is interesting to note that to qualify for the most basic
employment right, the right not to be dismissed unfairly, all employees must
work for a year. Parents, however, are entitled to enhanced maternity leave,
paternity leave and flexible working rights after 26 weeks – before parental
leave kicks in after a year. Maternity is never just a two-way matter between
employer and employee. There is a third party to consider: other resentful
The only solution to these issues is – plus ça change – communication. It is
always easier to say it than do it. But perhaps the EOC can, in a small way,
aid the process. In addition to arguing employers must respect and value
mothers (and be soundly punished if they don’t), the EOC should also go out of
its way to salute the delicacies involved in managing maternity. Like it or
not, maternity is a true managerial curse.