A Woman at Work: Discrimination of Mothers in the WorkplaceJun 15th, 2007 | By Jennifer Worrall Lynch | Category: Economy, Feminism
I have always been career minded. Since I can remember, I have vowed to put school, then university, then work, first. When I finished school, my parents had to practically force me to take a “gap” year before university. I was so worried that if I took a year off my peers would get ahead of me in the race toward a successful career. Thankfully, the gap year was the best thing I could have done, and I was more than a little relieved that it not only added to my life experiences but also looked great on my CV.
My father brought me up to believe that there are no barriers to my achieving whatever I want in life and that the key to success is confidence in my own abilities. This advice has stood me in good stead thus far. When, out of 500 applicants, I was one of only three chosen for a graduate trainee program, I knew I was on my way to the public service career I had always planned. Initially I was proud to be the only woman in the trio—I always felt that I could compete against both men and women, and I thought that this traineeship would give me an opportunity to show that I could beat the others up the slippery pole to senior management. Three years on, I have successfully completed the trainee program and have taken on a challenging role in the organization that should provide something of a springboard to bigger and better things. However, while my belief in my abilities to get to “the top” remains undented, other forces have come into play that make me question how I will fare against my male colleagues over the long haul.
When I started my traineeship I was a young, single-minded graduate, prepared to do what it took to further my career, albeit within moral boundaries. These days I have the added responsibility of being a new wife, and I sometimes ponder whether I have now crossed the threshold in the wrong direction between appealing “breath-of-fresh-air” mid-twenties and slightly jaded “should-be-thinking-about-that-biological-clock” nearly-thirties. Of course I joke but the “wicked” issues for women in the workplace have never seemed more real for me. I’m beginning to consider my own desire to have a family in the coming years and wonder how that will impact on my longstanding priority to fast-track my career.
We have become blasé in the way we talk about the inequality between men and women in the workplace, but the figures speak for themselves. In Britain women earn up to 40% less than men in part-time roles and suffer a 17% pay gap in full-time jobs. In addition, a recent report revealed that women returning to work after having children are the most discriminated against group in the British workforce—they are more likely to be treated unfairly than disabled people or those from ethnic minorities. The Equalities Review was established to carry out an investigation into the causes of persistent discrimination and inequality in British society, and its final report “Fairness and Freedom” cites that out of 122 recruitment agencies surveyed, more than 70% had been asked by clients to avoid hiring pregnant women or those of childbearing age. Workforce information illustrates this view: lone mothers with a child under 11 are 49% less likely to be employed than a man with a partner; mothers with partners are 45% less likely to be employed than men in relationships.
Citing this report as evidence of discrimination against mothers, equal opportunities and women’s groups are have been calling on businesses to recognise the benefits of mothers returning to work. From a personal point of view, this report is damning news. It confirms my deepest and darkest fears about being taken seriously in the workplace and about how having children may jeopardise future career opportunities.
Yet the argument is not cut and dried. Mothers have to face up to some difficult questions. When you’ve taken one or more years away from work, regardless of the valuable child-rearing you’ve been doing, should you not expect employers to take into account the decline in your current knowledge and experience of your field? If you are an employee (of either gender) who has not taken parental leave, would you not expect your dedication to the job to stand for something? The Fairness and Freedom report claims that women are pushed into accepting part-time or lower paid jobs that do not make best use of their skills so that they can continue to look after their families. This is a difficult one for organizations, though, as some mothers feel they cannot re-commit to full-time work and it is not always viable to introduce the necessary flexible working hours to more senior posts—I have personal experience of working for a part-time manager and it can be very frustrating waiting for decisions from a boss who is only available three days a week or who leaves the office at three o’clock to pick the children up from school. Should businesses suffer so women can have it all?
Of course most mothers would say the answer to that question is “no” and that the either/or question is a red herring. The public sector in Britain has been using the flexible working directive for years and will tell you that flexibility is not about doing less, it’s about being smarter with your time. Besides, in order to qualify for flexible working hours you have to prove the business case and consider the needs of the organization. The private sector often talks about the money lost due to women swanning off to have babies, but the truth of the matter is that the UK economy is losing out on up to £28bn a year through the unemployment of women. Is it not about time that businesses just dealt with the fact that one or other of the genders must be given time to raise children and that if they don’t buy into this approach they will always miss out on 50% of the talent?
I believe that mothers will continue to have to prove themselves to be twice as good to justify the concessions they require to maintain their role as effective carers. No doubt many will achieve this but to that end I remain fearful about how motherhood will affect my career. It is likely that my two male colleagues on the trainee program will consider fatherhood to have no bearing on their working lives and it is more than a little galling that I must view motherhood as a possible barrier to progress in mine.
References & For More Information
‘Minister for women rules out pay audits for private firms’, Personnel Today, May 2007.
‘Fairness and Freedom: The Final Report of the Equalities Review’, Cabinet Office, February 2007
For information on statistics on working mothers in Canada:
Fast Facts on Childcare in Canada. Canadian Council on Social Development.
Work-Life Conflict in Canada in the New Millennium: A Status Report (2003). Public Health Agency of Canada.
Mother’s Day…by the numbers. Statistics Canada.