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.
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.
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.”
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