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Put your baby in a zoo: discrimination and working mothers. By Sarah Fletcher


Photo of a baby monkey
Last week I went to the zoo and got a very nasty shock. Although it wasn’t exactly Noah’s Ark – the only animals on show were a couple of limp birds and a fleeting glimpse of a lion’s paw – the zoo certainly didn’t lack the small, snotty kind of creature that scream and throw icecream over themselves.

Weirdly, despite the fact that many children would fit nicely into a zoo, people still choose to have them and, according to a new report, employers continue to discriminate against women who opt to have both a family and a career. Mothers with children aged under 11 face greater prejudice in the workplace than any other group, claims government research.

More women than ever are juggling the commitments of work and a family: 55 percent of women with children aged under five now work outside the home, compared with 25 percent in 1975. However, despite the growing presence of working mothers, the government report claims that employers are costing the economy up to £23 billion by failing to employ well qualified and experienced women because they wish to work part-time.

“I am a bit anti the “have it all” concept. HR and society at large have become delusional and that our obsession with “equality” has descended into “fixing the race” so that everyone comes first.”

Nik Kellingley, training consultant

Fixing the race?

But do all employees agree that working mothers are given a raw deal? Training consultant Nik Kellingley challenges the idea that women have a right to the same career opportunities as their single colleagues if they don’t wish to work as hard. In fact, he questions whether they should even want to work when they have children. “I am a bit anti the “have it all” concept,” he says. “I think that HR and society at large have become delusional and that our obsession with “equality” has descended into “fixing the race” so that everyone comes first.

“I find it disturbing that we live in a society that encourages mothers to rush out to work and not look after their children,” adds Kellingley. “Our children are the unhappiest in the world, but we continually push them away from their families so that others can care for them – at the tax payer’s expense – so that mothers can be tax payers.

“I think responsibility towards our children is an essential and one that we neglect because it is convenient. I don’t mind which parent is substantially involved with raising their children at the expense of their career, but one should if we want our children to live healthy, balanced lives,” he argues.

Is it really impossible to have a balanced family life as well as a career free from discrimination? Are working mothers just facing the reality of what happens if you don’t show the commitment to your job that the employer requires? “I believe that employers are reluctant to make special arrangements for parents which are seen (and rightly so) as discriminatory against those who did not decide to have children or were unable to do so,” argues Kellingley.

A case of commitment?

But why should “special arrangements”, such as flexible working or the opportunity to work part-time, be seen as discriminatory against childless employees? Perhaps the issue is whether such practices are suitable for the company – ultimately, should the business need decide? “It is wrong to employ someone who is not suited to a job or whose personal circumstances make them incapable of performing it regularly,” says management consultant John Pope. “This applies whatever the sex of the person.

“It is wrong to employ someone who is not suited to a job or whose personal circumstances make them incapable of performing it regularly. This applies whatever the sex of the person.”

John Pope, management consultant

“It is unreasonable for an employer to be unable to choose those who are best suited by ability, qualifications and circumstances for the job which has to be done, despite what opportunities commissions may say,” he argues. “But it is also wrong for an employer to invent reasons based on prejudice for not employing or promoting a working mother, or for that matter, someone with a disability. Many employers are still not good at recognising prejudice in their employment processes and the way they are applied in practice,” adds Pope.

So is it the case that working mothers must prove their competence or lose out in the career game? According to HR manager Toscano Berengere, many employees don’t realise just how hard these women work. It is, she says, “hard to juggle everything, especially the prejudices some colleagues have when they see you going at 3pm to pick up your child at the nursery. They think your work day is over when in fact you are still going to work at least three further hours at home and probably a couple of hours during the weekend to make sure that you are worth the confidence your employer is giving you in allowing you some flexible time.”

Making the choice

Ultimately, argues Pope, focusing on career or family is a choice and employees must necessarily face the consequences of that decision: “When it comes to the usual question of having to choose between a career and family it is assumed that that is a woman’s choice. It applies to men as well, many of whom do not drive themselves to a successful career because they are not prepared to spend the time away from home. They lose out in the promotion race. That is their choice. And the question of the under-representation of women at Board level reflects a misunderstanding of what is required of a director, and the experience as well as the abilities which are needed and are generally only gained by long and continuous service.

“That said, some of the biggest companies in the world have a woman as their chief executives, and the number of women in high positions continues to grow. But many women managers take substantial maternity leave as well as career breaks, and their progress is likely to be slower. Some are also not prepared to devote themselves wholeheartedly to a career and the numbers who get to senior level will be fewer.” Kellingley agrees: “I believe that employers don’t discriminate against mothers. They do, however, discriminate against lesser experience (strangely enough – they want experienced people to do a job) which a parent, who spends some time wholly as a parent, is going to have.”

“Good employers should, in their own interest, consider where they will get the people they need and provide the circumstances which make it possible and attractive for them to be employed.”

John Pope, management consultant

Should employers do more?

“On the question of whether employers should do more to help women’s employment, my answer is that good employers should, in their own interest, consider where they will get the people they need and provide the circumstances which make it possible and attractive for them to be employed,” says Pope. “Those with talent should be helped and encouraged to progress, and that should apply to both sexes. I do not think there is generally sex discrimination there.”

Toscano suggests better financial support during maternity leave or a bonus to motivate mothers back to work, repayable if she were to leave within a certain time period, would ease the problems faced by working mothers. However, she argues the burden of care also lies with the government, whose standard maternity pay (SMP) and paternity provisions are too low to have an improving effect.

Unfortunately, according to Pope, “many employers practice some form of favouritism, I think usually unconsciously. A few still have very old fashioned attitudes and treat women as second class citizens.” However, Kellingley says that it is foolish to want to have it all: “Children are a responsibility not just a right. And all responsibilities come at a price.”

By Sarah Fletcher

10 Responses

  1. Use childcare vouchers to give parents more choice
    Despite the growing trend towards flexible benefits and flexible working hours, many mothers still have no real choice about whether to return to work after maternity leave. On the one hand, there are women who would like to return to work, but their childcare would cost more than they could earn. On the other hand, some mothers would much rather not return to work, or maybe just work part-time, but they simply can’t afford not to work. Childcare vouchers can help in both cases. For people whose earnings would be eaten up with childcare costs, childcare vouchers help to reduce the impact of nursery bills and making returning to work more viable. For those who would like to reduce their hours to part-time, the savings which can be achieved by using childcare vouchers can make this possible. Setting up a childcare voucher scheme is so easy, there’s no wonder that so many employers are now looking at introducing a scheme. For simple advice on how to get started, visit

  2. Part-time working
    As one of the ‘typically balanced consultants’ whose views Sarah quoted, may I add that when possible employers should consider flexible working and part time working. It can often make a job much more attractive to the employee and be more valued as a result.
    It may cost a bit more and be more difficult to manage but you can get better, and more reliable and sometimes more committed people that way. The idea is not new, one of the big Dutch insurance companies was doing it in 1970. The British armed forces, the Fire Service have being doing it for generations.

  3. Flexible working – not just for parents
    I too run a very small company. After a great deal of research and consultation with our staff, we have implemented the right to request flexible working to all staff, regardless of any caring responsibilities. We have made it clear that requests must detail the perceived impact on the team and organisation and suggestions for how any potential problems might be overcome. We ensure the team members discuss the request and agree a way forward that everyone is happy with.

    While we have not been able to fully agree all requests, the vast majority have fitted with the needs of the organisation and so been approved.

    All staff are working flexitime, with an agreement within teams who is going to provide cover outside core hours. Several staff are working compressed hours in order to reduce the commuting burden or allow focused time on study or sport. Several have moved to part-time: to study (which is very beneficial to our business!); to ease into retirement (so we can retain important skills); and for one staff member, to care for children.

    Staff surveys prior and post implementation have shown increased loyalty to the organisation and this is supported by a drop in absence and turnover.

    If it is possible to offer flexible working beyond those with caring responsibilities in your business, I would suggest you do it. Our business is thriving…

  4. And what about the dads?
    As always the focus is on working mothers, with just a nod towards the vast majority of fathers who also lose out in the equality stakes if they want to share the responsibility for their children.

    Report after report focuses on the problems faced by working mothers but where is the research on why fathers rarely benefit from family friendly policies in the way that mothers do or how those men who want to be equal or prime carers for their children pay the same, if not a higher price than working mothers in the career stakes because employers find it even harder to see male carers as career minded.

    This is not a gender issue it is a “parents” issue – but as employers tend to be wary of discrimination claims from women but not from men so called family friendly policies are designed primarily for mothers with fathers left to make what they can out of what ever is on offer.

    Who can honestly say that their “family friendly” policies have been designed to meet the needs of both fathers and mothers? Who can show that fathers make the same use of the schemes on offer as mothers?

    As a father I worked full time until a few years ago when I became one of the relatively small proportion of professional men (other than those taking a job after normal retirement age) who work part time. My career opportunities have been limited in the same way as many working mothers – I could only find part time work at a much lower level – and even employers who set out to accommodate working mothers find it difficult to get see working fathers in the same way.

    And what are those references to “singletons” about? Single women can be mothers (in fact just as many children are born to single mothers as to married ones) and single men can be fathers and being married doesn’t mean that you have or want children.

    The issue is about parents – we all know the issues faced by mothers but until “equality” becomes inclusive of men our needs will continue to be sidelined.

  5. Not just Women!
    I run a tiny company, one member of staff is a part timer and a dad of 2 under 10’s. Mum works M-F 8-3 & does the afternon pick-up. Dad does the morning school run & covers all the holidays… we were happy to flex his working time when mum changed her hours so that he comes in at 9.15, and to have the hassle of only have him term time because he is such a valuable asset; at the end of the holidays when he returns we sit down & do a handover.

    Very very rarely he ends up being a couple of hours late because a child is sick and he has to arrange child care but we certainly don’t penalise him for this.

    It takes 6 months training in our niche market before an employee is fully fledged. Even if we wanted (which we don’t!) to risk upsetting him would cause chaos for the next few months as we found a replacement.

    When we need someone to work late, he is the first to volunteer. When there’s a difficult job he is happy to oblige. The value the business gets back from our flexibility is huge… perhaps more employers need to think hard about their practices.

    Oh, and he gets paid and has the same holidays as other people here, just pro-rata. And the same benefits (car / pension etc.)

    It’s not just mums who need flexibility…

  6. Don’t make flexible working a gender issue
    I’m an HR Director, a mother of 2 under-11s, and since they were born, I’ve worked part-time, full-time, been employed and a consultant, and had a couple of stretches where I didn’t work at all.

    The danger with taking a gender-based approach to flexible working is that it can become emotive and inflammatory, on both sides. The issue, it seems to me, is not really about working mothers per se, and I think it’s very helpful to take gender out of the discussion and talk in general business and economic terms. If we do that, any change will de facto benefit working mothers.

    I think the root of the issue is the inability of company resource planners (sometimes HR, sometimes not) to think sensibly (i.e. practically and in economic terms) about the jobs they create! I’ve seen far too many people doing full-time jobs when those jobs could easily and very realistically be done part-time, simply by carving the job spec differently. Too many businesses over-recruit for their jobs at all levels. (One person’s part-time role, I believe, is another’s development opportunity).

    As a result of poor resource planning, I’ve witnessed a range of business problems – high staff turnover, low productivity, unstable customer and client relationships, poor margins and so on. All because companies have been conditioned for generations to think ‘full-time’. It’s the default position, isn’t it?

    Flexible working has undoubtedly become more prevalent in recent years but it still has a way to go. I think we’ll make more progress if we focus on the economics rather than the gender issues.

  7. Do we really have a choice?
    No we do not.

    My son is now 4 and I have worked ever since he was 7 months old but not through choice. Ok it is true, I would probably go bananas if I had to talk baby language all day every day as I know many women who do and are. However, society now dictates that if you want to be able to afford a house that is big enough for a family both parents have to work unless one parent is lucky enough to earn a huge salary. If you are in the bracket of average earnings, you are rarely able to afford to live on one salary unless you have a tiny mortgage set up before the property boom, or you have a willing and fit mother/mother-inlaw who will look after their grandchild for free. Why should they, they have done their ‘time’ already! Good affordable childcare is very hard to find but use it we must.

    I do sometimes feel guilty that I am able to work more flexibly but really any company nowadays should be able to provide flexible working arrangements, within structured parameters perhaps, bearing in mind the amount of mobile technology available these days. We do not feel comfortable about being singled out over-favourably any more than we like having to juggle work and home life. The ecomomy is the root of the problem and the government have much to answer for.

    As for companies, they need to employ a mixture of different people with differing skills to perform all roles and functions, they cannot single out one type, that is a basic aspect of discrimination. So companies should make the working envionment suitable, whatever the ‘type’ of employee.

    Whoever you are, everyone has a different set of personal circumstances, people are not robots.

  8. Working mums aren’t so bad…surely?
    I’m surprised by the overwhelmingly negative view presented here of working parents, specifically mothers. Not all working mothers clock off at 3pm after spending the entire day trading child anecdotes!
    In my experience, employees with children generally behave in a more mature fashion at work, are more conscientious and generally more responsible and organised than their singleton counterparts.
    If an employer behaves fairly towards working parents, allowing them the flexibility which just makes life so much easier when juggling young kids and a career, they will get that goodwill back in spades when said kids are old enough to look after themselves. It’s an investment in the future and I believe it’s misguided to look at the situation so negatively.

  9. “focusing on career or family is a choice” can’t “family” be a c
    My wife always earned more than me until she chose to become a career mother. One thing that annoys her is other people (including parents) who assume that being a full time mother is something less than a career.

    In the office she had held the future of corporate finance deals in her hands…as a mother she held the futures of two utterly dependent human beings in her hands….which do you think is the greater responsibility?

    We now have two well adjusted, healthy, considerate and supportive teenage children… beats the hell out of another page on a CV.

  10. What about the singles?
    Interesting article, most consultants advocating a typically balanced response, in some respects there isnt much that is new in the article.

    However increasingly work life balance and its oblique references to discrimination are the issue at the moment.

    “hard to juggle everything, especially the prejudices some colleagues have when they see you going at 3pm to pick up your child at the nursery.”
    Yep, when the part timer isnt asked to do tasks because they wont be available to complete it. When the part timer isnt given responsibity because they arent available for the briefing. When the part timer spends more of their ‘in’ time catching up and swapping children anecdotes than actually working. This isnt prejudice, this is observed behaviour and its how the employer allocates the workload.

    I pity the poor singletons they lose out to families every time and lets not forget the men. However families are a good thing, society and employers need to confront this more fully.

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