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Equality police stymied by the wrong answers on pregnancy


Surveys can be funny things, especially if they give answers they weren’t meant to give. The EHCR, formally the Equality and Human Rights Commission, recently found this out the hard way.

Last year this body homed in on pregnancy and equality. It commissioned YouGov to survey something over 1,000 assorted recruitment decision-makers – a fair proportion of whom were, one suspects, female – asking, for example, whether they thought women ought to have to disclose pregnancy in job interviews. The questions were clearly framed as questions expecting the answer No and thus (as Latin teachers used to say) falling to be introduced by the particle num.

The results were interesting, and surprising. On disclosing pregnancy the percentage vote was actually a resounding Yes: 59-34. There was 51-38 agreement that the grant of maternity leave could cause resentment to other workers. Nearly half thought it reasonable to find out if female applicants had small children (46-49). There was nearly an even split, too, on the questions of whether women should be expected to wait a year in employment before having children, and whether those having more than one pregnancy in the same job could be a burden to their team. Substantial majorities of small and medium employers (and also, in a delicious irony, of those in education) added that the need to accommodate pregnancy under equality laws amounted to an unnecessary cost burden.

One can see why the EHRC wasn’t happy. Not only had it got answers it didn’t want, but put bluntly, most of the responses it did get had a worrying air of truth and sweet reason about them. To anyone outside the paid-up equality establishment, it’s an unpalatable but incontrovertible fact that undisclosed pregnancy in new recruits causes serious dislocation, especially in a small business; that childcare responsibilities can play havoc with one’s workers’ schedules and availability; that the pregnancy of key employees can indeed create major disruption; that colleagues do resent having to do extra work to cover for colleagues on maternity leave; and that the need to accommodate absences connected with childbearing costs employers an appreciable amount of money that has to come out of profits.

How did the Commission react to alll this? Two sensible responses would have been available. It could have admitted that the respondents had a point, and that there were extra costs associated with pregnant women workers that did not affect male ones, but insisted that if we were committed to sex equality, this was something employers had to put up with. Alternatively, it could have shown flexibility and contemplated the possibility – at least post-Brexit – of changing some rules: perhaps relaxing the burdens on small firms, or limiting the numbers of occasions on which paid pregnancy leave could be taken.

Unfortunately neither of these appealed to the EHRC’s rather inflexible mindset. The result was that, to anyone reading its reaction, it comes across as doctrinaire, censorious and rather silly.

The official reaction of chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath sounded like a cross between a headmistress lecturing the fifth form about writing on lavatory walls and a colonial bishop’s wife bemoaning the natives’ lack of biblical knowledge. The respondents, she fulminated, knew perfectly well it was against the law to take into account pregnancy in deciding whether to appoint, but still insisted on being interested in such matters. They were living in the dark ages; they needed to be made to understand the basics of discrimination law and the rights of pregnant women and new mothers. (In fact they had not been asked about their knowledge of the law, something of which we say more below: but we can let that pass).

And the solution proposed? It came perilously close to a concerted programme of political re-education. The respondents had been asked, not about their knowledge of discrimination law, or even whether despite their personal views they obeyed it, but about their personal feelings and in certain cases about factual matters, such as whether co-workers resented having to fill in for colleagues on maternity or pregnancy leave. No matter: their answers would not do. There had to be a “change in perceptions”, since it was necessary for employers to “put a stake in the ground to eliminate these attitudes”. To this end, moreover, machinery had been set up for their reinstatement in the ways of sound doctrine. All they had to do was to join Working Forward, a body set up by the EHCR itself and largely sponsored by mega-corporations like Barclays Bank, to spread the gospel of equality. Having done so they would be enabled to understand and humbly confess their previous errors, engage in “best practice” (whatever that is: one suspect it largely means doing as one is told by equality experts) and confirm that they now really believed in the true faith of anti-discrimination.

Such a statist combination of the high-minded and the corporate, not to mention the political and the quasi-religious, might not be what you and I would understand as the best way to run society or the economy. But then we’re not the equality experts, and so presumably we aren’t qualified to say.

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Andrew Tettenborn
Andrew Tettenborn
Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law at a well-known UK university, who also teaches in Europe and elsewhere. In the 2001 General Election he stood as Ukip’s candidate in Bath.

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