The unfair advantage of being a pregnant woman

Over the last couple of days, readers of British newspapers have been treated to a series of articles detailing how the number of women forced to leave their job because of pregnancy discrimination, or concerns about the safety of their child, has doubled over the past decade to 54,000. The study by the Equality and Human Rights Commission – which is cited by a new report by The House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Select Committee – claims that more than one in ten pregnant women and new mothers were either dismissed, singled out for compulsory redundancy or left their job because of poor treatment in the workplace and that a massive 77% of pregnant women and new mothers experience some sort of discrimination at work.

Now, we have previously discussed how the choices women make, rather than discrimination, are to blame for the so-called gender pay gap. Similarly, we would expect that discrimination is not necessarily to blame for women feeling so badly treated at work in general. And conveniently, another fresh-off-the-press survey indicates how this may actually be the case: according to the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, 35% of UK finance professionals claim the bonuses awarded to the top earners in their companies are undeserved, and 62% of UK professionals felt unjustified bonuses fuelled resentment among colleagues. In other words, feeling that your workplace is not a meritocracy is commonplace. A very large percentage of us are unhappy with how we are treated by our bosses. It does not require too much imagination to think that when women feel badly treated they sometimes find a convenient excuse in their pregnancy, when what they are experiencing is just part and parcel of acting in a workplace.

We are not suggesting that women may not sometimes find it hard to juggle career and motherhood, and that sometimes companies will prefer men, who tend not to go on long paternity leaves and to a much lesser degree give up their careers in favour of being a full time parent. There is in fact nothing wrong with such behaviour by companies, any employee is judged not just by current actions but also by the employer’s expectations of future actions. Adapting to the future is crucial to running a successful business, and should be encouraged rather than banned. Blame women’s behaviour for the problem, rather than being outraged over how companies react.

That is, if there really is a problem in the first place. What is missed by the one-dimensional debate about gender discrimination is that we all feel unfairly treated sometimes. It may in fact be that pregnant women happen to have an advantage in being able to point to a convenient excuse, whereas the rest of us can do nothing but grit our teeth and get on with it. The Women and Equalities Select Committee have, among a host of other measures, proposed to ban companies from making new mothers redundant unless in certain special circumstances such as gross negligence or extreme financial difficulties. Of course, the result will be that a non-pregnant colleague will get fired instead. So it is the rest of the workforce which will be discriminated against, and the duty for firms to do so is set to be enshrined in law.

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