Belinda Brown: It’s not your employer’s job to look after your baby

(This is the first of two posts by Belinda Brown on pregnancy and the workplace. The second will appear on Tuesday.)

As the Government tries to impose another layer of legislation to promote the interests of pregnant women, employers, SMEs and smaller businesses need to start speaking up.

We learn from a new Government report (which incidentally cost £1,015,307 to research and produce) that 77 per cent of the 3,254 mothers surveyed, reported one potentially discriminatory or negative experience as a result of their pregnancy. It sounds alarming but is it really very  different from the knocks that we women and men take on the chin in everyday life?

The part of the story that received less attention are the findings from the 3,034 employers which they also surveyed.

The majority of the employers felt that the statutory rights were reasonable. However, issues emerged which definitely need to be aired. For example, a quarter of small and private sector employers felt that the rights of mothers on Additional Maternity Leave were unfair. In manufacturing, this proportion went up significantly. Seventeen per cent of employers felt that pregnant women and new mothers were less interested in career progression and promotion. Nearly a quarter of large employers felt that employees abused their rights during pregnancy. Twenty seven per cent of employers with less than 250 staff felt that pregnancy put an unreasonable cost burden on their workplace. Twenty six per cent of employers found it difficult to manage the uncertainty of whether the employee would return to the workplace.

You all know the story. The list could go on.

When we hear tales of discrimination these are the figures which also need to be born in mind.

When a relatively new employee announces she is pregnant, are not those of us who are going to have to pick up the slack to be forgiven for feeling a tiny bit aggrieved? Is not the employer entitled to feel a little resentful when the new starter, who has received a lot of training, announces she is pregnant? All that training will be forgotten when she takes her time off work.

The reality is that when we become mothers, we significantly change out attitude towards work. As one mother explained in research that Geoff Dench and I conducted, “I just felt like I had got a new job, and it was more important...I think a lot of mums feel like that”. Let’s be honest. When pregnant some of us are febrile and oversensitive. When we have a new baby the majority of us would like to spend more time at home.

Sometimes I suspect this ‘discrimination’ has nothing to do with the pregnancy. The employer might want to downsize the role of the employee because she is not pulling her weight at work.

However, when a woman is pregnant or has a new baby, she is immune from any action that an employer might take to protect the interests of his business. After all, the employer must protect the expectant or new mother and is responsible for her well being and that of her child and this takes priority.

While pregnancy should be honoured (above all by the mother) surely, ultimately, the duty of care and protection does not lie with her workplace? Rather it should lie with her husband and family. The baby’s father is the one we should be expecting and equipping to take this role. When we place all these responsibilities on the workplace – have we not got things the wrong way round?

The majority of mothers would prefer to spend less not more time at work (see page 19 of this report). Surely extending the period during which we can take legal action, and reducing the costs of doing so, at precisely the time when we are, thanks to government policies, indeed living in straitened circumstances, is putting a very tempting instrument in our hands?

There are far more practical solutions to securing an efficient and committed workforce. I will discuss these in tomorrow’s blog.

Belinda Brown

  • Earthenware

    You’ve touched on this briefly, Belinda, but it’s a major issue that is rarely discussed…

    Years ago, when I was a junior manager with a team of half a dozen people, I had a female employee who took the larger part of two years off work to have two children in short succession.

    The maternity financial entitle for her was fairly short-lived, but she was entited to take a year off for each child. Her finances were her affair, but it meant that the rest of the team had to pick up her workload for that entire period.

    The company had no obligation – nor intention – to back-fill her position. Why should it? The legislation was the work of know-nothing politicians and there was no government funding to cover the cost of back-filling positions. Why should the company shoulder the financial burden?

    Ultimately, the woman concerned came to be viewed as selfish and was resented by the rest of the team. When she eventually returned to work she found that technology had moved on and she was now the de facto office junior.

  • Colkitto03

    Its still true that many small businesses don’t employ young women of a child bearing age, as the risk is to high.
    Rather than address this, legislators have made it illegal to ask about personal plans at interview stage.
    So the state knows that young women of child bearing age are a potential liability to business,.

  • Stephen T

    The managing director of a small textile business told me that his company almost closed when two women in crucial positions went on maternity leave in quick succession. How is a small company supposed to cope with this? The MD told me he’d never again employee a woman of child bearing age in crucial positions because he had a duty to keep the firm afloat for the rest of his employees. Increasing maternity rights just makes women less employable, except in the public services, which are hugely inefficient as a result.

    • Groan

      I think we simply have to be realistic and pragmatic and maybe accept the reality. Sweden is a really interesting example. As maternity rights (and family friendly time off) grew the pattern of employment shifted. With the result that after 3 decades Sweden is one of the most “gender segregated” workforces. Its productive sectors are over 80% male and public services pretty much a female concern. In a sense they could have pragmatically decided “so be it” and accept men as the collective “breadwinners”. But in response the policy has been to have compulsory time off for dads. In a competitive world not wise I think.

  • digitaurus

    My wife is a physiotherapist in the NHS – a large majority of members of her team are female and juggling maternity leave is a nightmare. Generally, people behave sensibly but occasionally someone will deliberately game the system – taking a new job when they know that they are pregnant and then going on maternity leave shortly after starting the job. If it’s hard to manage in the NHS (Europe’s largest employer, I believe) it’s going to be impossible in a small business.

    • Groan

      One of the biggest problems in the NHS is the pretence that this is not an issue. When clearly it is. For instance there could simply be an admission that over school holidays and especially the summer most things will be on a limited service. Rather than the pretence of appointments etc. which we all know will never be honoured. A great deal of friction from the public comes from the NHS not being able to deliver on its “promises” which promises seem to be based on an imaginary “full time” NHS. So many of the “shortages” we often hear about are simply that so much of the workforce is in fact “part time”. Maternity leave “family friendly” hours and shifts and a truly appalling absenteeism level (ironic for a “health” service. All add up to very much less actual service. I’m not suggesting easy answers but ignoring the problem means solutions aren’t even on the table.

  • J M

    The problem is that we all have expectations of a standard of living that can only be sustained by two salaries. The cost of housing is such that it almost dictates that two salaries are required. Families simply cannot afford to lose an income if they are to keep their heads above water. Whilst a parent staying at home to care for the children is the ideal for the children, for most families it is simply not a realistic economic proposition. Either we all face up to the fact that we need to have lower standards of living and, for those of us who already are on the housing ladder, lower house prices – with all that that entails, or we have to find an acceptable means of enabling the present situation to continue. This will inevitably raise the question of who pays: the family, the employer or the tax payer, but someone has to pay. As is ever the case, however, our politicians are too spineless and the press is too unforgiving for an honest debate to occur. Meanwhile Hell approaches as we travel in our ever-dilpatidated handcart.

    • Jethro Asquith

      And all this is a result of ‘equality’. When women decided they wanted to go to work as well rather than instead of (where they have better earning potential) their spouses. The result is, as you point out, prices rose to the affordability level of a 2 income family meaning the single income traditional family cannot afford to live at the previous standard of living.

      Of course some of the biggest losers in this are single mothers, another group promoted by feminists over the traditional family.

      Feminism has a lot to answer for!

      • Groan

        I think Feminism had rather less to do with the causes. Economics and the collapse of many industries was a big player. However Feminism squarely gets in the way of a serious debate about the best response to the problem of squaring children’s needs and adults wants and indeed economic realities.

  • Longstone253

    There have been a lot of articles on this topic recently, in this publication and others. It’s all very well, and valid: I understand and respect that women on maternity leave can be a problem for small and medium businesses, and to some degree for any other work organisation. But what are we suggesting as a solution? That because a few women milk the system – that every other woman, of reproductive age, must be punished in terms of reduced employment and promotion opportunities? Well that happens already and many working mothers find themselves sacked, sidelined, underpaid and/or victimised, etc..

    Or are we suggesting that women are only allowed maternity leave when they have worked for a organisation for a minimum of 5 years and/or that they are only allowed to have one child, or only one per 10 years? ( Because love, relationships and families fit nicely into such schedules, don’t they? And, of course, it is only up to women this, isn’t it – nothing to do with their husbands/partners?) Or some other draconian measure? It is a conundrum but the solutions start to sound like something from a dystopian novel.

    It sounds as if the only solution is for women to be divided up into two groups from an early age: Those who believe they might at some point want children, or are not sure, will be assigned to permanent low-paid, low-status, low-skilled, uninteresting, non-essential work such as stacking shelves in a supermarket. Others who can somehow (!) be certain, from an early age, that they will never be having children, and can be sure they will never change their minds – they will be allowed to have a career. (There may not be very many of the latter.) Would that work? Probably. If it were enforceable. (It is really hard being a working mother already so it might not take much more to push more women into deciding that having children is a mug’s game.) It wouldn’t be fair though and would take us back about one hundred years in terms of gender-equality.
    I suppose It may sound airy-fairy but how would men feel if they were the ones who had to face such difficult choices? If they had to be the ones who bore the main brunt of parenthood, the career-damaging effects of being responsible for childcare and the negative trappings of being a working mother in terms of discrimination, judgment and disapproval?

    Part of me would like to go back to a time when women stayed at home to look after the house and the children. Women were maybe less stressed in those days, and treated with more respect? But are we really going to turn back time? Can we even?
    I am unimpressed and tired of hearing from men (many of whom have children) and childless (‘child-free’) people moaning about the employment rights of pregnant women and working mothers. We all benefit as a society, even if it is indirectly, from at least some children being born each year, don’t we? Maybe not? Maybe the intolerance towards working mothers, and women on maternity leave, is down to over-population? We don’t care about children any more, unless they are our own? There’s no community, societal feeling any more, no respect for the role of motherhood? So all the work that women do is worthless, irrelevant? We can go back to a time where one salary was enough to support a while family? How would employers feel about the necessary pay rises for men, fathers, more money for the same amount of work?
    Any other solutions?

    • Groan

      I think there is much in what you say. I wonder if the solution is to look at this completely differently. Look at what would be best for children and parents and trying to build from that. rather than the current starting point which appears to be how to get all adults to be workers. This should include thinking of “parents” rather than just mothers. And the fact that in fact having and nursing a child is now not a big time commitment overall with few families having more than one or two children. Some pragmatic responses to families needs with some state assistance to smaller firms perhaps. Currently the debate appears to quickly depart from pragmatism to ideology.
      You may have seen the hoo ha in Italy as the government encourages families to form and have children. All the major EU economies face this contraction (and aging) of the population. The UK was expecting to but our position has been (temporarily) transpormed my massive immigration. Perhaps the European countries struggling to simply maintain population my start to value children and parents.
      Children are our future in so many ways and we know caring parents are vital to them. The start could be made there. There is after all decades of research on what is best and to be encouraged.

    • WFC

      “There’s no community, societal feeling any more, no respect for the role of motherhood?”

      You don’t consider the possibility of a correlation between this and the creation of these workplace rights?

      Why do you think (wanted) pregnancy went from something to be celebrated and congratulated, to something to be feared and resented?

    • Colkitto03

      You make some good points. There are no easy solutions.
      But lets start by stopping this huge societal and governmental pressure on young mothers to work.
      A third of mothers don’t work, a third work part time.
      The final third work full time, but half of them say they wish they could give up or go part time. The MSM, governments and feminists have so denigrated stay at home mums, that many working mothers feel that choosing that option equates to ‘failure’
      I think a figure from the USA I saw showed that only about 18% (half of all working mothers) of mothers said they were happy to be working full time and bringing up children.

  • Groan

    I couldn’t see from the report itself how many of the Employers were public sector. Given the sector has different “drivers” one might think that their response as employers would “skew” the responses.

  • Cecelia O’brien

    No it is not the employer’s job. But it is in the interest of an employer to provide benefits especially in high skill sectors that are competitive. Provision of workplace child care makes a company more competitive in getting those high skilled workers. It also has been demonstrated that when a company provides child care the parents take less sick leave etc. So the practice will continue for high end workers. Low skilled workers – not so much.
    It is also in the interest of the state to support policy which encourages family formation and childbearing. Now it would be nice if the state promoted an environment in which a parent could stay at home and raise their children but given that is not happening – affordable quality child care is a part of a policy which promotes marriage and having more children. In those EU states which have very low fertility rates – the research shows it is lack of child care and family friendly policy which keeps woman from having more children. Women also tend to keep their jobs instead of taking maternal leave when the country does not have a flexible work place where people can enter and leave employment easily.
    So if you want marriage and improvement in the birth rate – given the current situation – workplace child care is a piece of the effort needed to encourage marriage and child birth.

    • Colkitto03

      There is little evidence to suggest that improved childcare (or financial incentives) increases birth rates.
      Sweden has fantastic, low cost, childcare and great maternity conditions for both parents but that has had negligible impact on birth rates.
      Germany has much better provisions than the UK (child benefit is 184 euros per month per child) but has a dire birth rate.
      Low birth rates in the west are much more to do with other social reasons I guess.

      • Cecelia O’brien

        sorry but there is evidence. The EU commissioned a study of countries with low and high birth rates to determine what made the difference. First off they found the majority of women in the EU countries would like to have at least 3 kids. So what stops them? It differs from country to country but in general the issues of childcare are primary. Sweden has one of the highest birth rates in Europe – they are at a replacement level. That counts for high in the EU. And Sweden provides generous child care benefits and paid maternity leaves with a flexible work force – it is easier to leave the work force and re-enter.
        Again – it matters in cases where skill is important and competition for skilled workers is high.

        • Colkitto03

          The statistics you quote are still low and below the 2.1 rate needed to replace. What make the statistics misleading is that in Sweden foreign born mother’s are dragging up the rate you quote (same in the UK)
          Swedish born mothers are still bearing children at a 1.8 rate. So the childcare system is not incentivising.
          Frances 6 million Muslims are doing a great job of keeping France very high in the birthrate league tables.
          Oddly Ireland and Iceland on the fringes of Europe do have replacement birthrates.
          I agree that finances are incredibly important in boosting birthrate but rather than childcare I think these other fundamental factors make the biggest difference:-
          Husbands job security
          Cost of affordable housing
          Proximity of extended family.
          These are just a few examples where I think the world have become a more frightening place for prospective mothers

          • Colkitto03

            I should add that you are quite right about people wanting more kids.