There is a fear factor for many women of a certain age in the workforce: maternity. Even if you don’t currently want children, or never want children, you become keenly aware that you set alarm bells ringing if you apply for a new job. Even if your CV is the best they’ve ever seen and your interview style is immaculate, if a male, or female outside of child bearing age were to apply, you fear they would jump ahead of you simply due to your biology and the potential for pregnancy.
In 2018, the Equality and Human Rights Commission carried out a survey with YouGov to find out what employers actually think about pregnancy and maternity. Within their findings was that 36% of those surveyed believe it’s reasonable to ask potential female employees about their plans to have children in the future during the recruitment process and 59% believe a woman should disclose if she’s pregnant during the recruitment process. Considering the fact that it is against the law in the UK to factor in pregnancy in hiring a woman, and that it is not a requirement for a woman to disclose it, the fact that two thirds of employers expect it is a clear indicator our fears are not unfounded. It’s also a conundrum I’ve had personal experience with.
A year ago, I saw a job advertised and knew I wanted it. It was the next step up for my career, with a company I had great respect for, in an industry I adored. I polished up my CV, took great care with my covering letter so it didn’t sound too much like fan mail, and submitted it with a rush of adrenaline. The next day I got a very different rush of adrenaline: I was pregnant.
After the celebrations, a sobering thought dawned on me; I need to withdraw my application. My instinct was that I would be wasting everyone’s time because, even if I had the best CV and my interview style was immaculate, they were not going to hire a woman already pregnant.
I discussed it with my husband. Alongside a reminder of how precarious the first few months of pregnancy are, he encouraged me to “not be stupid” and keep my name in the game. His argument being that even if I simply got my name known, it would put me in good stead the next time a job there came around. To be honest, neither of us believed I would get it.
I had a first interview, and then a second. And then I had my scan. There on the screen was a tiny squidgy blob a sonographer told me was my healthy baby. I now had a decision to make: whether I should tell the company I was pregnant before the third and final interview.
I had absolutely no legal obligation to but there were two factors which influenced my decision. Firstly, I felt I was deceiving them and that it would jeopardise any future opportunity to work for them. Secondly, my kid was already making his presence known in the form of a fairly sizeable bump. Concealing him was going to be both an emotional and physical challenge. I dropped the HR contact an email; “I would love to come back for the third interview, however I should inform you that I am pregnant”.
I went for the interview, utterly convinced their insistence that the pregnancy was not a problem was a diversity tick box. Easier to see me and then dismiss me on other grounds than say outright the fact that I’d soon be so large I could be seen on Google Earth was the problem. It’s the most relaxed interview I’ve ever done, as I figured I had nothing to lose. As a result, it was the most enjoyable interview I’ve ever had. I laughed and joked, I even made a reference to Ronan Keating not understanding the communications profession (i.e. it’s really not best to say nothing at all…) and left feeling gutted that I wouldn’t get to work there. Until I got the call asking when could I start. At five months pregnant, I had my first day. After just over three months of work, I went on maternity leave.
In the YouGov survey, they found that 44% of employers agree that women should work for an organisation for at least a year before deciding to have children and 41% agreed that pregnancy in the workplace puts ‘an unnecessary cost burden’ on the workplace. Yet here I was having to go off for antenatal appointments (and a fair number of them thanks to complications from my first pregnancy) from the moment I started working and my manager couldn’t have been more brilliant and understanding. There was no resentment, no asking if I could reschedule, no moaning that hospital appointments are regularly delayed in a waiting room with no wifi.
The difference: I was being viewed as a long-term asset rather than my pregnancy being viewed as a short-term problem.
The result: I’m on maternity leave with the greatest feeling of respect, admiration, and loyalty to my new employer. As I enter the final stages of leave, I’m excited and energised about going back to my role and repaying them for their trust and respect for me.
Women are more than their biology. We hear so much, from the #MeToo movement to organisations like Lean In, about the need for women to have a seat at the table, progress in their careers and get into senior managerial positions. I do wonder if there is a correlation between my experience and the fact that my senior Directors are female and that my employer has one of the few female CEO’s. If so, it’s further proof we need more of them to open doors for more women to follow them through.
“The difference between a broken community and a thriving one is the presence of women who are valued.”Michelle Obama
One final stat from the YouGov survey that shocked and concerned me was that a third [of those surveyed] believe that women who become pregnant and new mothers in work are ‘generally less interested in career progression’ when compared to other employees in their company. If I may be so bold to say: what a load of crap. I wanted to pursue my career and have a family, but it was the belief of how it would be perceived and the opportunities presented to me that would be the barrier rather than my own motivation. (N.B That perception comes from both sides. I’ve had former employers tell me that my work would suffer and equally had fellow mothers inform me that my children would suffer.)
By not managing maternity, both hypothetical and existing, with respect and understanding, we are pushing women out of career development and sometimes even out of their careers altogether. But my experience shows there is a way to do both, to parent and pursue a career, with the right employer attitudes and opportunities. Men have been doing both for generations without anyone batting an eyelid!