Blog: Pregnant Then Screwed(1) by Safia Boot, Founder, Respect At Work Ltd

Blog: Pregnant Then Screwed(1) by Safia Boot, Founder, Respect At Work Ltd

04 March 2020

No matter what sector you work in, becoming a parent is a life changing experience. It is a time when a person will feel the most intense sense of joy, meaning and fulfilment in life. However, it can also be accompanied by an avoidable sense of fear and anxiety.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) Research2 shows 77% of women report having a negative workplace experience during pregnancy and maternity leave that is possibly discriminatory. Scaled up, this amounts to 390,000 women in the population annually.

The difficulties for BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) women is amplified due to stereotypical assumptions both in the workplace and in their access to medical care: A 2018 study concluded that overall 40% (5 times higher than in white British women) of all direct maternal deaths occurred in women from BAME groups3.

When’s it OK to ask about Pregnancy?
The EHRC findings are no real surprise when 6 in 10 employers (70%) think women should voluntarily disclose their pregnancy and intentions to have children during recruitment.

Strictly speaking it’s risky asking a woman about her pregnancy plans. It’s not the asking that is discriminatory per se, but what one does with the information or the perceived failure by the candidate to give a response to such an enquiry. I had my own experience of being asked such questions from HR people who should know better so made sure to write the first maternity policy for a technology company I was working for in the 1990s when leading Graduate Recruitment.

Few women have the required resilience or financial resources to challenge their treatment or know how to successfully navigate ‘family friendly’ policies where they exist in organisations attempting half-heartedly to attract and retain female talent. This is a particularly critical issue for the technology sector, given the incredible opportunities for business growth and challenges of skill shortages.

Despite decades of campaigning for greater workplace equality, women remain disappointingly under-represented in the UK’s technology sector. The figures speak for themselves: according to WISE4, just 23% of the people working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) roles across the UK are female – and only 5% of leadership positions in the technology industry are held by women.

This (technology) is a sector that is simultaneously cutting edge and antiquated in its approach to diversity and inclusion encompassing the intersectionality of race-gender-disability-age and sexual orientation.

The potential failure to retain diverse talent once it is attracted to this exciting sector creates a ‘hole in the bucket’ syndrome whereby the lack of female (and BAME) role models acts to deter the next generation.

As the saying goes: ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’.

Whilst there are many factors that may deter women and other under-represented groups from entering the sector, ruthless working cultures mean many businesses are still lagging behind when it comes to providing a flexible work-life balance, maternity cover or an empathetic approach to having conversations about career aspirations with the onset of parenthood. Suddenly, being pregnant or becoming a parent via other means (adoption, fostering, IVF) involves paying a mother-parenthood penalty.

It is insufficient to simply rely on having a written Maternity or Diversity and Inclusion policy but then fail to show evidence of fair enactment in practice. Especially in white male dominated cultures with female dominated HR teams resistant to change in both overt and subtle ways.

A failure to recruit, train and performance-manage for inclusive leadership creates unnecessary risks and under-utilisation of scarce talent. Unless the designers and advisors of these policies and practices subject themselves to regular audit using some element of personal lived experience of the issues around conception, pregnancy, maternity, parenting and its intersectionality with race – it can be an isolating experience to challenge both decision makers and peers – male and female can be complicit.

Until it is normalised for men to share the childcare, the change in culture will continue to move at a glacial pace by being seen as a minority issue for women rather than a family and societal issue.

Pregnant women are often riddled with anxiety about the timing of disclosing their pregnancy for fear of how they will now be perceived in relation to their commitment and competence.

Insidious comments can include appraisal feedback after announcing pregnancy along the lines of: “You might need to tone down your ambitious career plans, because as a father I know how hard it is to be a good parent” [said by a father who has never put his career on hold as he had a stay at home wife].

This is a guilt trip pregnant or prospective adoptive parents don’t need. Those who are pregnant will have their hormones in turmoil and anyone contemplating even a short maternity or career break will have their self-confidence ebbing away worrying not just how they will cope but how others would cope with their changed circumstances.

Women/parents are not naive in thinking some life changes will have to be made to get the balance right between work and personal life. What they need is encouragement to feel empowered with the right practical support and attitudes. They deserve the same love and care we expect them to exercise in nurturing the next generation to be productive and balanced citizens.

Such subtle undermining remarks are often followed by failing to create a clear career and return-to-work plan with the pregnant woman/adoptive parent before going on leave. Continuing discussions during the leave period – including supporting on-going access to training opportunities and sharing details of vacancies and other development opportunities – helps a woman decide for herself how much she wants to stay connected to help transitioning back to work.

It is vital there are opportunities to discuss flexible working options rather than misdirecting a woman (as in another case I was involved in) to take unpaid leave to delay her return whilst ignoring her request for flexible working given her post-natal depression had left her feeling in turmoil.

When such incidents arise, few employees know how to navigate difficult conversations or internal processes. If they nor their employer have an embedded culture of using mediation and conflict resolution skills to resolve stereotypical assumptions, things escalate to external litigation and unnecessary silent turnover. Further, they act to conceal systemic issues that may exist across the organisation. Daily micro-aggressions can chip-away at the normative statements about aspirational organisational vision and value statements never to be realised.

Due to the challenges of being believed – and even if a woman has the courage to raise her concerns – the lack of informal resolution does not mean the pathway to raising concerns via litigation are any easier. As a result, less than 1% of women ever bring Employment Tribunal proceedings.

The road to taking a stand or walking away becomes a forced choice between having to safeguard not only their own mental and physical wellbeing but that of their child(ren) and partner. This tends to result in feeling forced to agree to Non-Disclosure Agreements (‘NDA’s).

Many women report how they are ‘gaslighted’ to believe they will be committing ‘career suicide’ by complaining and hence, by their silence, they become complicit in perpetuating a pattern of treatment that is long overdue for radical change.

Employers can create inclusive cultures by supporting women and parents through a range of interventions such as: thoughtful job design, coaching, parenting courses, financial support, parenting support networks to facilitate employee voice and listening, internal mentors, timely risk assessments, regular communications, easy to follow guidance and neutral advice on how to navigate HR policies and know their employment rights (and responsibilities), and importantly training HR/line managers to deal empathetically with parents so they feel valued when going through a normal life change. Managers are parents and role models who need to reach out to shape the attitudes of the next generation.

The technology sector has an opportunity to grasp the challenges ahead to ensure a sustainable future that includes all of us. It just takes an element of innovative thinking, but this is hardly rocket science for an age-old human experience.

#Racism #SexualHarassment #MeToo #Age #Pregnancy #Maternity #Conception #Infertility #IVF #Adoption #Fostering #EHRC #EmploymentTribunal #STEM #Immigration #SkillShortages #Recruitment #Retention #NDA

Safia Boot – Founder Respect at Work Limited

All words & pictures © Respect at Work Ltd
Twitter: @respectatworkuk

1 Pregnant then Screwed (PTS) is a campaigning charity
2 EHRC “Pregnancy and Maternity-Related Discrimination and Disadvantage ‘First Findings: Surveys of Employers and Mothers – BIS Research Paper No. 235
3 “Midwives experiences of caring for high risk women from Black Asian Ethnic Minority groups: Sarah Chitongo Midwifery Educator and Clinical Skills Manager Middlesex University; Seacole Development Awardee 2018/2019