Sexism, babies, and our assumptions about work

It’s 2015, and we’re constantly told that sexism is over, feminism has had its day, and would you nagging witches please just simmer down already?

And then this happens:

An Auckland mother was told that having her kids in daycare could affect her job prospects because she would need too many sick days to care for them.

The mother rang O’Neils Personnel Recruitment Agency about an administration-manager job advertised on its website this week.

“The woman I ended up speaking to asked me if I have any children,” said the mother, who did not wish to be identified. “When I said yes, she asked if they would be in daycare, which they would be.

“She then proceeded to tell me that the client would not be interested in me as an applicant. Why? Apparently because daycare is a hotbed of illness, and I would have to leave work all the time, because they would be sick all the time, and when you are employed you have to be there, to do the job.”

A better headline might be “Sexist assumptions cost woman job chance.”

I’m going to be honest, here: I do not believe that Ms Sleep, the recruitment agent quoted in the story, asks men the same questions. Maybe she asks, “so does your partner take care of the kids when they’re sick?” Or maybe the topic of kids comes up in an interview and she thinks “gosh, he sounds like a nice family man.”

But I sincerely doubt that she’s ever told a man “look, you need to come back to me once you have a Plan B for childcare, because this employer won’t hire you if you have kids.”

We live in a society which makes a huge number of assumptions about work and child-raising.

Women are assumed to be the main carers of children

I know a couple who decided dad would be the stay-at-home parent. This caused shock, because the assumptions are so ingrained – people actually asked her, when she was back at work, “but what have you done with the baby?” – and people asked him, when he took the baby to daycare, “oh … *sad face* what happened to the mum?”

We would sooner assume that a woman would leave her six-week-old baby totally unattended at home, and that a man’s wife has died tragically in the first six weeks of baby’s life, than “she went back to work and he takes care of the kid.”

Ironically, this creates a vicious circle. If you’re having kids in a heterosexual relationship, and one of you needs to take time off after a baby’s born, and the woman in the relationship is far likelier to be paid less or promoted because people assume she’ll be the one taking time off … guess who ends up reinforcing the stereotype?

All women of child-bearing age are assumed to want/be planning children

I have friends who are childfree, and have been for many, many years. And even the women who are most outspoken about never wanting children face the same condescension: “oh, you’ll change your mind when you get older!” and “you’ll feel differently once you meet the right guy!”

There’s a few other poor assumptions right there: all women are cisgender, all women are heterosexual, all cis women can physically have children.

And of course, we can never take a woman’s word for anything because the ~biological clock~ is far more powerful than a silly ~ladybrain~. This points us towards a simple truth: women are seen as less intelligent, capable, and autonomous than men. You could almost argue that the “risk” of pregnancy or childcare impacting on work is a smokescreen; an excuse to justify simply not valuing women as equal human beings.

Children are the only reason people ever miss work or leave jobs

In this 2013 article, recruiter Ryan Densem complains

… he had dealt with employers left “frustrated” from employing a pregnant women after investing time and money into the hiring process and training, only to have to go through the same process a few months later to cover their maternity leave.

Has Ryan Densem really never encountered a man leaving a role within a few months? Does he refrain from head-hunting great candidates who’ve just started new jobs because it would be unfair to their bosses? Do men never get really sick, or injured, or decide to move to a new city?

I’ve worked places with huge turnover. Multiple people quit less than six months after starting. Huge amounts of time and money wasted on recruitment, and work left undone because everyone else was so stretched – and not a pregnancy in sight. There was a poorly-trained team leader and a toxic culture of managerial bullying, but for some reason that’s viewed as unfixable. Much easier to just not-hire an entire gender.

Besides, as recruiter Annette Sleep says in the top article,

It’s risk management and clients don’t pay us a handsome fee to send them risky candidates. The candidates don’t pay us a brass razoo. In business you work for the people who pay you.

Plenty of “handsome fees” to be made off a managerial class who drive good non-pregnant candidates away, I imagine.

What about sick days? Can I refuse to hire young men because they might go to the Sevens every year and I can’t afford to cover their hangover-sickies? People who play weekend sport, because they might get injured?

Ryan Densem wants to pretend that this is all about six-months-pregnant women switching jobs and forfeiting their entitlements to paid parental leave (because this ever actually happens), not systemic and deliberate discrimination against women on the basis of gender. But researcher Annick Masselot notes

“Women are not merely discriminated against because they are pregnant and are about to take a period of parental leave, they are discriminated on the basis of the next 15 years of school holidays”

Because all women will have children, and all children will get sick, and all women will be the ones taking time off because their sick and wanting school holidays off and leaving their jobs at the drop of a positive pregnancy test.

Given all this it’s not surprising that that our Human Rights Act makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex – including

preferential treatment relating to pregnancy and childbirth, and family responsibilities.

At least Ryan Densem has the good grace to be honest about the lies employers tell:

“They’d never say, ‘Sorry, we won’t hire you because you’re pregnant’. They’d say, ‘Sorry, your background and experience isn’t exactly what we’re looking for’.”

It’s okay, Ryan. We know exactly what you mean.

So there’s the gendered, identity-politics side of the argument. But there’s a slightly broader set of assumptions in play, around work and workers, regardless of gender – and my thoughts on that got a liiiiittle bit long, so tune in tomorrow.

One Reply to “Sexism, babies, and our assumptions about work”

What do you reckon?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s