I had a heated debate with my mum last night. This isn't unusual, I seem to spend a lot of time trying to persuade my parents to look at things from a different viewpoint. This time it was about an issue close to my heart - discriminating against women because they get pregnant. Unfortunately, her perspective is not that unusual, yet I believe this stance is incredibly harmful, not just for women but for society and the UK economy.
''But what about small businesses?'' she said. ''They can't afford to pay a salary to the person on maternity leave, in addition to the cost of recruiting someone new. It then takes a month or so for the temporary employee to get up to speed, and inevitably they are never as good as the person who has gone on maternity leave, otherwise they would have a permanent job already!''
My blood boiled. She didn't just leave it there, ''When your dad had his clothes shop, he used to avoid recruiting women of childbearing age, particularly if they had recently been married.'' At this point I had to leave the room.
A few weeks ago I launched a project and campaign called 'Pregnant Then Screwed.' The project is designed to expose the very systemic problem of pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace. It is estimated that 60,000 women a year are pushed out of their jobs from the moment they get pregnant and this doesn't account for the thousands of women who suffer harassment, are demoted or don't get the promotions they deserve. It also doesn't account for women who are self employed and lose contracts because of their pregnancy. Most women are too scared to speak out about this issue for fear of being branded a troublemaker or for fear of losing their job. Even if they are brave enough to take a case of discrimination to Tribunal, the likelihood is that they will be forced to sign a Confidentiality Agreement preventing them from speaking publicly about what happened to them. This means that in most cases, discrimination is brushed under the carpet, rarely forming part of any public debate on equality.
Pregnant Then Screwed is a place for women to share their stories, anonymously and in their own words. This is not only a cathartic way to release some of the bruising and unfair experiences undergone by women, but it is also a medium to shine a light on this structural problem, opening a public debate and ultimately intending to change perceptions of pregnant women, whilst campaigning for more effective legal structures to protect them. Through these stories, women can see that they are not alone, making them feel empowered to speak out about this injustice. Together, our voice is much stronger and we can make a case for recognition, respect and change.
In the meantime, I think I need to tackle the points raised by my mum head on, so here goes.
1) Maternity is expensive for a business
Statutory maternity pay is funded by the Government. Granted, it is not nearly enough, but a company can decide whether to offer maternity benefit or not - i.e they can choose whether they top up the Government's pay. They have no legal obligation to do this. For small businesses in particular, the employer covers the staff member's maternity pay but in return they receive 103% of that back from the Government to help with admin costs. In April, the law changed to implement 'Shared Parental Leave' - this now means that fathers are also entitled to paternity pay in certain circumstances. Again, unless the company decides they would like to offer additional benefits, then this is funded by the Government.
2) Time expenditure for training someone new
Firstly, there are plenty of very skilled people out of work, or looking for new opportunities. Recruiting someone on a temporary contract does not mean that you are going to get someone who is substandard. If you are a larger, or growing organisation, this gives you a chance to try someone out on a fixed term contract. There is a high likelihood they will be keen to impress, they may offer new ideas and different experiences which could be invaluable to a small organisation. Maternity leave creates some fluid movement within organisations, this has a positive effect on the UK economy as it allows people the opportunity to upskill. A professional is more likely to be given a chance to do a job a step above their experience if it is temporary. How long it takes for them to get up to speed is inevitably affected by the processes and procedures the organisation implements. I do understand that there are some really specialised jobs where the employer has invested a lot of time and energy in training someone, only for them to go on maternity leave. I am sure this is both vexing and frustrating, but people can leave any job at any point, so this should be factored into your strategic company management as a matter of course.
3) Pregnancy and motherhood changes priorities
I am not going to deny that the new baby will be a priority, it absolutely should be, but I fail to see why this should impact on their ability to do their job. My nesting instinct was such that my focus was to provide a stable framework to support a child and this meant ensuring I had a safe and secure job to return to. If I let things slip whilst I was pregnant, I knew I would make things much harder for myself, and therefore for my child. I have heard many women and employers say the same. If your staff member has reduced efficiency whilst they are pregnant, maybe they didn't care that much to begin with. More likely it is because you are not making them feel valued, or perhaps you are unwittingly discriminating against them because you have already decided that their priorities have changed.
If you aren't willing to employ women who might have a baby then what is the alternative? Are you going to avoid recruiting women aged between 18 - 40? You think that is a good option? It's a good option if you want to completely alienate that demographic. If your company doesn't have young female staff members then the likelihood of you retaining this market is very slim, reducing your income potential. There are a wealth of statistics underpinned by robust research which demonstrate the vast economic benefits of diversity and a happy workforce to an organisation. You ignore these at your peril.
So let's re-think how we approach pregnancy and maternity in our organisations. It doesn't need to be seen as a burden to your bottom line. Let's stop discriminating and let's give every woman the chance to succeed; because it is not only the right thing to do, but it is good for business.