New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that she will have a baby in office in a no-nonsense way: “I am not the first woman to multitask,” she stated.
The pregnancy is sure to be heavily scrutinised and to attract a welter of stereotyped views about pregnant women losing focus during pregnancy – the whole “pregnancy brain fog” thing, being irrational and the like. Already Ardern has been asked how she will manage with morning sickness. She took it in her stride: “It’s what ladies do.”
Of course, every woman is different and has a different experience of pregnancy, but most manage to get their job done perfectly well. Indeed, many women go out of their way to overcompensate for the stereotypes and work harder to show that they are still perfectly capable.
Those stereotypes are damaging, though. They fuel discrimination against women in the workplace and, unfortunately, that discrimination is very much still alive and kicking.
According to research commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in 2016, three quarters of pregnant women and new mothers experience discrimination and one in nine lose their job as a result.
What women need when they are pregnant or returning from maternity leave is a bit of empathy and support – not assumptions based on generalisations.
It’s not just pregnancy discrimination, though. After the baby is born there is an assumption that women will no longer be focused or committed to their job, resulting in further discrimination. Yet it is assumed that men will be more committed because they have more mouths to feed. Nowadays, most families rely on two incomes and growing numbers of dads, particularly younger ones, want to share the caring responsibilities.
Women and men face challenges after their children are born around adjusting to what is a huge transition, around work life balance, as today’s Modern Families Index shows, and around logistical issues such as pick-ups from childcare or school. Workplaces that don’t take that into account are not thinking long term.
Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In opens with her struggles across the Facebook car park when she is heavily pregnant. Her managers hadn’t made any accommodation for such things because, having not been pregnant women, they simply hadn’t considered the need to.
Having more women in senior positions – or indeed having more people from different walks of life in senior positions – means there will be a better understanding of the needs of employees – and potentially customers or clients. That must surely be good for all of us. In politics this is perhaps more important than in other areas. Having more female politicians means the issues that affect women will be higher up the agenda and will make government more representative of the electorate.
The gender pay audits have highlighted starkly the issues around women’s career progression. A key issue – though not the only one - is the lack of women in senior positions. What works to get more women into senior positions? Many employers have leadership initiatives and mentoring schemes. These have become almost a tick-box response to the gender pay issue. But when you ask employers about what really works, the big issues are managers’ attitudes and ability to create the conditions for all their team to fulfil their potential, regardless of their circumstances, and positive role models. If you don’t see it you don’t think you can do it. Hopefully Jacinda Ardern’s example will inspire more women into politics and up the career ladder and will show that pregnancy is not a barrier to a successful career.