As the Government announces plans to crack down on companies who discriminate against pregnant employees or new mums, we ask how it is possible that we are still having this conversation in 2017? Women make up almost half of the working population (47%), on paper have more rights than they ever have had and yet still face discrimination at work for having a baby.
There is no doubt that having a child is a life-changing event. The weight of responsibility of caring for and nurturing a little person is quite overwhelming. But realistically, this is something we humans have been doing for quite some time. Thousands of years in fact. And in the developed world, we have it really quite cushy: advanced medical care, endless support groups and networks, every piece of baby equipment imaginable, online shopping for those middle of the night essentials. Even legislation is finally coming round to the idea that women may continue to have babies for quite some time, so, while it’s still women who physically have to go through pregnancy and labour, the law finally recognises that they are not automatically the one who stays at home and dads/partners can now get in on the parental leave act.
So why is having a baby still such a big song and dance for employers?
Well, because having time off to have a baby causes some logistical issues. Who is going to do the work while that person is away? How long will they be off work? Will they even want to come back, and if so will it be on the same terms? Then there is the cost. An employer has to fork out for maternity pay, holiday pay and pay for covering the role. But here’s the thing: it’s far easier to plan for someone having a baby than for an unplanned and lengthy sickness absence, for example. The beauty of managing maternity cover is that you know it’s coming and have time to plan. At least six months, to be precise – yet despite this, it is far from uncommon to find employers and line managers ‘panic recruiting’ at the last minute, praying that baby won’t have the temerity to arrive early, before the maternity cover handover is complete. And yes, sometimes people take up to a year off with their baby but others may be back in the office just a few months later. If women stopped having babies altogether for the sake of their careers we’d all be in a bit of a pickle. No business will ever have a perfect workforce that all stays in place permanently, because its change that enriches and grows a business, and ultimately it’s change that leads to progress. It’s an organic process and if nobody leaves or takes time out from a business then it can become stagnant and stale.
But it’s still inconvenient. Clients will have to be handed over to someone else, new people will have to be trained. All because someone wanted to have a baby. Well, yes, this is a situation where life just gets in the way. Unfortunately it’s often difficult to tie in a whole conception, pregnancy, due date and then actual delivery date with that crucial work conference or deadline. Babies have a habit of arriving when they want to, not when it’s convenient. This might be hard to swallow for many but it’s the start of a whole process of putting someone else’s needs before your own. Now if that’s not a good sentiment to be passed on through a business, I don’t know what is.
Pregnant people have so many rights! Yes, they do have rights, largely due to shameful practices in the past (and even the present in some companies), which have seen women ousted from companies at the merest whiff of pregnancy, or the merest suggestion of the need for some flexibility in order to balance work and parenthood. And actually rights for pregnant women are proportionate and fair: don’t sack someone for having a baby, don’t make someone redundant when they are 8 months pregnant and can’t get another job, and pay people fairly for the work they have done in the year.
And all that maternity leave – they can have a whole year off! Hmmm. For anyone who has ever spent time with a newborn baby, the idea of maternity leave being ‘time off’ is debatable. Growing and delivering a baby is a hard physical process, hence the two weeks enforced maternity leave, which prevents women from returning to work during that initial fortnight after the birth. After that, whichever parent decides to take ‘leave’ will undoubtedly be sleep deprived and learning a whole new job of being a parent. That takes time, and all the while there is a little person completely dependent on you to provide for all their needs. So, yes, I think we can allow a little time for that. And no, it’s not like going to Club Med for a year.
For the real doubters out there, just remember that we were all babies once. We were all small and vulnerable and someone took the time to nurture and care for us when we needed it. Not just for the first year but for many years after that. Let’s not overcomplicate it or over-legislate it. Babies are being born every minute of every day so it shouldn’t come as a big surprise when someone in our business has one. We need people to keep making more mini people. They’re future adults, future workers, future leaders and future parents. We need pregnancies, therefore we have to allow some leeway for those having the babies. So next time you roll your eyes about yet another pregnancy or some dad wanting to leave early for a school play, remember that you were that child once and how great it was when your parents were there for you.
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