Consider the scene. You’re sitting in an interview and the interviewer asks you if you plan to have children in the near future. Okay, it’s against the law. But what if it wasn’t? Would you answer “yes, I plan to have children” because you are indeed keen to start a family? But what if you didn’t get pregnant for years, or ever? And what if you answered no, but then subsequently got pregnant? Could you be sued under false pretences? The long and the short is that, as a woman, you have the potential to get pregnant at any time up to the age of 45. There is indeed no correct way to answer this question and get a job, whatever Sir Alan Sugar says. But even now when it is not permissible to ask about pregnancy intentions, many employers get round it. One interviewer, a woman with children indeed, asked my previous boss whether I planned to have a second child. Sadly, my previous boss, also a woman, didn’t point out that she shouldn’t be asking the question, but answered that she didn’t think I had any immediate plans, so I got the job. Three years later I did have a second child and two years after that a third one. When pregnant with the third child, I had a run-in with my boss. If I had not been pregnant I would have left then and there. But I knew that it would be virtually impossible to get another job while pregnant so I stayed. It was a very long nine months.
Such experiences are commonplace. They go with a general climate at many workplaces which is not supportive of working mothers, although some are doing pioneering work. Most companies, however, boast that they offer good maternity packages and flexible working. Surely they are supportive? Why then are so many women leaving the workplace or choosing to set up their own businesses? And why have so many women registered with sites like WorkingMums.co.uk? They clearly want or have to work, but what is it in their existing company’s working practice that makes them want to leave? Is it, as we are told so many times, lack of commitment? I think not. You have to be fairly committed to endure the manic rush every morning of getting children ready for school/nursery and rushing out to work, reorganising childcare on a weekly basis for sudden crises such as childminders getting ill, and working round the clock to get work finished.
But in the end, if this work is not recognised and employers are not supportive, even the most downtrodden woman begins to question whether it really is all worth it. One friend of mine who works in the health service said she woke up one morning and just didn’t want to get out of bed. She was signed off on stress leave and has since “downsized” her career.
Many companies say they are supportive and “flexible”. For most, it usually means that they offer part-time hours [and part-time wages, often for doing the equivalent of a full-time job] or slightly earlier start or finish times. In my experience, the flexibility often seems to be offered as a sort of favour, for which working mothers feel indebted. They feel it can be withdrawn or altered for the slightest reason which can leave childcare plans in total chaos. I know several women who have, for instance, been asked to work on the days they contractually don’t work as if they are just hanging around on their “day off”. Flexibility, generally offered after maternity leave, can also be a trap. Few flexible jobs are advertised, although this is increasing. This places women in a very vulnerable position. If they are sidelined or bullied they have little recourse to action. Things are changing among some employers and flexible legislation is a good thing, but it needs to be accompanied by a greater focus on managers as people who listen to their staff and understand where they are coming from rather than play up to the dated Alan Sugar stereotype. Failing that, maybe management training should include some sort of temporary role swap with a working mother.
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