Are we making any progress at all? Sometimes it’s hard to be positive. Today’s figures from the EHRC show the prevalence of negative attitudes and assumptions about pregnant women, working mums and indeed all women in the workplace.
Not only is it assumed by many that all young women are likely to go off and have children - and hence a good percentage of employers (36% of private sector employers) feel they should be allowed to ask them about their reproductive intentions - but many clearly think women are the only ones who will have childcare responsibilities so it is fair game to ask women if they have small children. 46% of employers think this despite being illegal, given men are presumably not asked these questions.
Also around a third of employers assume women who are pregnant or new mothers are “generally less interested in career progression”. And this is an assumption because, though it may be hard for some to believe it, not all women are the same. The problem is that blanket responses to these issues result in potential negative effects for all women and certainly lead to many ending up sidelined, demotivated and - often - leaving a role or, in some cases, a profession they have years of experience in. Yet many women, just like many men, continue to want to progress their careers after having children. I know because I’ve spoken to many, many women who have left their employers because, not only did they need greater flexibility that was not offered or often not even considered, but they also wanted a greater challenge.
Such assumptions are damaging both ways. Just as it is assumed that men who have children will want to work harder and be more motivated after having children, will want to work all hours and presumably not see their kids, it is assumed that women will slack off and just want some kind of easy-peasy work that they can do in their sleep. Why is this still the case?
Surely it is a manager’s job to actually know their staff so that they don’t have to make assumptions. Is it not a failure of good management if managers do not know the basics about their team members, who they are and what drives them? All this requires is regular conversations and an interest in people. Yes, some women - and perhaps a few men - want to work fewer hours in the first months or years after they have children. To do so, many have had to take a lower-level job. But do they want to do that forever and how would you know if they didn’t? Could they do the job they had before if they were afforded some degree of flexibility? Flexible working, after all, is just about the practicalities. It is just the thing that makes it possible for people with caring responsibilities and others to do their job, like having the right office equipment.
Workingmums.co.uk’s annual surveys show the career impact - the loss of potential - of assuming flexible workers don’t want to progress. The lack of advertised senior flexible jobs means flexible workers are often trapped at the lower levels and cannot progress, with all the impact this has on their earnings potential. This is the irony of the EHRC’s survey results. Of course, some jobs might not be able to be worked on particular flexible working patterns, but there are so many forms of flexibility that employers could consider, but all too often still don’t.
We asked for women to come forward about the impact of flexible working on career progression. We were inundated with replies. The pattern was all too similar: ‘I asked to start 15 minutes later and leave 15 minutes later. My employer said no. I left. I am now earning xx less.’
These kind of attitudes are everywhere and women imbibe them every day. I recall being pregnant with my first child and being asked by my manager why I was overworking. The reason was that I was overcompensating for all the comments about pregnancy being a time to slack off that were prevalent at the time. I wanted to show that not only would my work not be affected, but I would work even harder. I have also suffered from pregnancy-related conditions and had to get off the tube on occasion after feeling faint on the way to work. I could hardly walk in the last month of one pregnancy. I’m not quite sure what employers mean when they say women are “taking advantage” of their pregnancy, but you can’t just pretend nothing is happening. All it requires is a tiny, tiny bit of understanding.
I’ve also been told an employer - a woman too - asked my referee if I planned to have another baby. One of the aims of Shared Parental Leave, with all its flaws, is to make it difficult for employers to make these assumptions solely about women. If men also might take months off, who can they possibly hire? Will they have to ask men all these questions too?
The problem is that the model of work we have is broken. It was designed in a different era for men with housewives, by men with housewives, but now it serves neither women nor men. The world has changed and work has to change with it. If your work model doesn’t include the fact that humans reproduce and that your actual future workforce relies on this, that both women and men need to work, that both mums and dads want to be good parents, then it isn’t a viable model. Not now and not for the future.