This morning at breakfast I read an incredibly dispiriting article about the discrimination women employees faced once they announced they were pregnant. One of the cases it highlighted was that of Ramona Jones, who worked in the human resources department of a county council, working her way upwards until she was a step away from a management position. Then she announced she was going to have her first baby. The promise of a move to a higher role disappeared and on her return from maternity leave she was shoved back into a boring role that she had held two years previously. By no means alone in this situation, she cited examples of women in senior positions who had been forced into a similar pattern or who, on arranging to work part-time, were expected to do their entire job in three days instead of five (can you imagine doing this with a new baby anyway?) and naturally floundered and were forced into redundancy.
It occurred to me as I read this article that the women were fine at their work – they did well and were rewarded for it – until the very point that their femininity became obvious. For what marks out a woman as a woman more clearly than her capacity to give birth? Women can be treated equally (though they are rarely paid equally, but that is another blog entry) as long as they act like men. As soon as their difference becomes obvious, they are penalised for it.
The thing that saddened me most was the colossal waste of talent that this practice encourages. The article ended with a comment from Ruth Holloway who was told to resign when she became pregnant and who, in trying to contest this, was forced to take a cheque and shut up rather than carry the case to a tribunal because she was so exhausted from fighting the company (and as a deaf woman who has to constantly stand up for my rights, I can totally empathise with this). Holloway said: ‘It’s great fun being at the school gates, and looking after my children full-time, but it’s not quite the same as the buzz that you get from running a massive team and being in charge of a £4bn budget. It’s not quite the same as leading a massive team project. If you’re the kind of person who can do that, then you enjoy it, and so I do miss it. I always will.’ The loss isn’t just Holloway’s, though, it’s also her company’s. Just from this comment you can see that the company has lost a bright, energetic and competent employee.
I recall a conversation I had with my father a while ago – one which didn’t, unusually, descend into a biting argument – in which he said that feminism had been around for thirty years and that good things had happened, but there were very few women in roles of power. He was of the opinion that women just weren’t cut out to lead. Actually I think the only reason why there wasn’t an argument was because I was still young at this point and hadn’t mustered enough ammunition to reply, so I let it drop. Now, however, I can see that at least one reason why there are so few female leaders: sexism is still rife and if it’s a choice between doing battle with a bunch of testosterone laden triceratops and looking after your baby, you’re obviously going to chose the latter, especially if it’s your first baby because you don’t really know what you’re doing and don’t want to fuck it up. This isn’t only detrimental to women, but to men as well: what if a man doesn’t want to spend hours at the office but wants to look after the baby too?
At the heart of it all is a glaring hypocrisy – the people who get to the top of a profession are often those who have been nurtured well. How can they then show such disregard for the job of parenting by keeping men at work away from their children, and by forcing intelligent women back into the home, where they may become bitter and bored (and looking after babies is incredibly boring, though few dare to admit it) and transmit that frustration to their children? And this is only one small aspect of the fallout from the poor treatment of female employees – I could go on for hours but I have a thesis to write.
The only hope I have is that gleaned from a newspaper I read a while ago, which said that companies will be forced to change to accommodate women because, as the population ages and the employment pool shrinks, companies won't be able to afford to lose their female employees. And it won’t, as my father thought, take thirty years. If, after three or four decades, sexism like this still exists, it will take generations to be rid of it.