Sexism, babies, and our assumptions about work

Written By: - Date published: 9:30 am, June 22nd, 2015 - 42 comments
Categories: business, feminism, jobs, sexism, workers' rights - Tags: , , , , ,

Originally posted at Boots Theory.

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 cisgendered, 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.

42 comments on “Sexism, babies, and our assumptions about work”

  1. Sabine 1

    i cant have children. The younger me often got asked if I a. had children and on my response No I don’t have children the response was : Do you not want children, or Oh You are still young. I learned to say: No, I don’t have children because I can’t have children.
    Stumped silence. Stupid assumptions yes.
    And my last paid office gig, the one that missed most work days was the Pet of our Manager. Young. 24, male and white. Nick Name, Missing in Action three out of 5 days of work.

  2. Lanthanide 2

    I even got the “you’ll want children when you get older” spiel, ironically from a woman who said herself that she doesn’t have children.

    Being gay, and my partner also having 0 interest in having children – this woman knew this and said once we got to 40 or so we’d want to adopt or whatever – I found this quite weird.

  3. Tracey 3

    ““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’.”

    And this makes proving it difficult and denying it happens, too easy.

    It’s like when you are sure that your position is NOT being made redundant, either someone else will have to do your job as well for a few months and in 12 months (or less) someone new will have your job. This is why in the case of redundancy an employee should have 18 months to file a claim of unfair dismissal… cos time usually produces the evidence.

  4. Kevin Welsh 4

    Personally, I am amazed that the world managed to function for so long before the witchcraft of Human Resources came along. In my experience it is just another way to fleece someone of money while doing fuck all in return. Just look at some of the glaring blunders that have happened in the Public Service over the last 10-15 years that were never picked up on by the personnel company involved.

    • JanM 4.1

      Ha! My feelings exactly – they are blood suckers, and a lot of this (above) can be laid at their collective doors. Funny thing is, most of the ones I’ve met have been women with children in daycare, and a nasty lot they tend to be,- very self-serving. Back in the day they were called wages clerks. I wonder if management have developed them as a buffer state so they can shift all the blame away from themselves when the stuff-ups occur?

    • Lanthanide 4.2

      “Just look at some of the glaring blunders that have happened in the Public Service over the last 10-15 years that were never picked up on by the personnel company involved.”

      How many blunders were picked up that you never heard about?

    • Save NZ 4.3

      +1
      Human Resources = incompetent blood suckers.

  5. Shona 5

    And after you’ve raised the children, managed a household of 6 for 20 years , run your own business during that time so you didn’t have to deal with the BS described above you’re still unemployable because of your age , lack of experience ( even tho you have more than the guy interviewing you)etc etc or too much experience or you would be a threat to the dickhead interviewing you because of your experience. So… you reeducate yourself at your own expense while renovating a house to make some money and you’re still too old ,wrong colour ,wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong . Yeah How I wish I had never returned to NZ. Too old to leave now.

    • Colonial Rawshark 5.1

      a declining society which makes neither space nor place for even talented, experienced Kiwis.

  6. Tom Gould 6

    Maybe the statistics would suggest that women are the main carers of children and that women of child-bearing age want children? Of course, some are not and do not. But most are and do. That’s the funny thing about assumptions.

    • It’s almost like you managed to miss the entire point of the post.

      Why not go away and think about why women do the bulk of childrearing and whether some women wanting to have children should mean all women are treated like it’s inevitable?

      The funny thing about assumptions is that when they lead to discrimination, oppression and marginalization, they’re not very funny at all.

      • The lost sheep 6.1.1

        Agree completely with the main point of this article, but some jobs do require a huge investment in time, effort, and expense to recruit a newbie and bring them up to speed.
        And even once up to speed, an employee is often significantly more valuable to a company the longer they stay in that role gaining experience.

        In such cases, Is it sexist for an employer to make an assessment of the factors that may effect the likelihood a candidate will stay in a role for a long period in time?

        Is this person likely to want to travel?. Have they had a succession of short term jobs? Are they newly arrived in this place and not yet settled? Have they indicated any medical or personal issues? etc etc…
        Including the possibility of pregnancy?
        With 85% of Women having an average of 2.1 children each, and the vast majority also being the lead carer, would you expect an employer to deliberately exclude that as one of the possibilities to consider in a ‘flight risk’ calculation?

        • Tracey 6.1.1.1

          re-read your post. Ten re-read the opening post. then re-read your post again.

          • The lost sheep 6.1.1.1.1

            Yes Tracy, and as I said i agree with the main point being made.
            What is your point?

            • weka 6.1.1.1.1.1

              In such cases, Is it sexist for an employer to make an assessment of the factors that may effect the likelihood a candidate will stay in a role for a long period in time?

              One of the points is that that assessment is being done in a discriminatory way. eg instead of asking all applicants about their childcare commitments, how they manage family illness etc, they are assuming that women can’t cope in the way that a man can (hence the suggestion to reread the post).

              Is this person likely to want to travel?. Have they had a succession of short term jobs? Are they newly arrived in this place and not yet settled? Have they indicated any medical or personal issues? etc etc…
              Including the possibility of pregnancy?
              With 85% of Women having an average of 2.1 children each, and the vast majority also being the lead carer, would you expect an employer to deliberately exclude that as one of the possibilities to consider in a ‘flight risk’ calculation?

              What they need to do is stop assuming that the woman (or man) in front of them is in that 85% simply because she is female.

              Plus any legal issus around discrimination. Society accepts that childbearing is a legitimate activity and so employers are going to have to suck that one up.

            • Tracey 6.1.1.1.1.2

              cos, the last sheep, your post suggests you didn’t get the main point of the post (unless you reframed it in your mind to make it what you wanted it to be).

        • One Anonymous Bloke 6.1.1.2

          Yeah, I’d expect an employer to obey the law and not discriminate, especially if that employer voted for a party that paid lip service to law and order.

          Otherwise they might get mistaken for a low-life hypocritical crim, and you know what the centre right thinks of crims.

          • The lost sheep 6.1.1.2.1

            NB. There is no New Zealand case law to clarify when it may be considered lawful NOT to employ a pregnant worker due to her inability to fulfil the terms of a time-bound project.
            MBIE

            • One Anonymous Bloke 6.1.1.2.1.1

              Tell the judge, crim.

              • The lost sheep

                I have received a legal opinion on such a case in fact, and that was that there are situations where consideration of a candidates suitability for the job may legally include factors that in most situations would raise issues of discrimination, providing that all candidates are assessed equally on the same grounds.

                The best known test case of such factors involved a Wellington Car Dealership that specifically employed an Asian Salesperson because most of their customers were Asian, and they deemed being Asian increased the applicants suitability for the job.
                The Employment Court agreed with that premise and ruled that the European Salesperson who had not been employed on the basis of his race had not been discriminated against.

                The legal opinion i received was that there may well be similar cases where pregnancy, or the potential for same, may in fact be part of a legitimate consideration of a candidates suitability for a role.

                • One Anonymous Bloke

                  Oh, I’m firmly in favour of crims getting a fair trial.

                  • The lost sheep

                    You be the judge then OAB.

                    I have a 18 month contract setting up a complex ground floor operation in a new territory.
                    The job involves 6 months full time highly specialized training to achieve ‘train the trainers’ level, followed by a Company paid shift to an Overseas location, and then 12 months extremely intense effort to establish and stabilize the new operation.

                    Due to the massive cost and disruption involved if the candidate was to resign or need to take significant leave during this period, one of the 3 key suitability factors all candidates are assessed for is a consideration of any factors identified that suggest the likelihood of not working through the full term of the contract.

                    The contract remuneration level is set at 150k with a 50k completion bonus in order to provide a strong incentive to stay the whole period, and all advertising and information on the role stresses the importance of the candidate being committed to the full period.

                    You get one candidate that informs you that they have received a cancer diagnosis, and one that tells you she is pregnant. (Yes, really.)

                    Is it criminal to assess that the suitability of these 2 candidates is compromised by the factors they have informed you of?

                    • One Anonymous Bloke

                      I’m sure those pleas in mitigation might secure you a reduced sentence if not acquittal.

                    • The lost sheep

                      How gracious of you M’Lud.

                      My solicitor says there is little doubt such cases are about suitability, not discrimination, and that is why no case law has yet been established around this area.
                      Sensibly, the Law does continue to allow working to the Spirit rather than the letter.

                    • One Anonymous Bloke

                      I think the main thing is that the courts recognise that many centre-right employers have gutter ethics and will say anything they feel entitled to.

                      A ‘get tough’ approach is beyond appropriate.

            • Tracey 6.1.1.2.1.2

              “a time-bound project”

              as opposed to a full-time or part-time position

  7. Hateatea 7

    This reminds me of the bad old days in the late 60’s and early 70’s when the men our age (early 20’s) were paid extra to keep them and they left after a few months anyway, and they were invited to join the super scheme and we weren’t. 3 of those women spent their entire working lives, more than 45 years working in that same local body.

    Sometimes I wonder whether the fight for pay equality has been sidelined by this assumptive, presumptive and irrelevant thinking by people who really should know better.

  8. JanM 8

    “daycare is a hotbed of illness”. From the horses mouth (recently retired early childhood teacher and lecturer) this is inclined to be true, and as more and more day cares are privately owned and profit-driven,they are less and less inclined to deal with nits and sniffles and more inclined to demand that the unwell child be removed. There are rarely any facilities for dealing with unwell children. It may impact more on the mother, but there is often quite a serious impact on both parents and the family as a whole if caring is shared. Sick pay rapidly runs out and day cares charge full rates whether the child is there or not. It’s walking a tightrope if you are a parent, whichever sex you are and it’s high time that facilities for the children of working families were revisited holistically – in fact, the whole employment/family package needs a major overhaul as far as I can see. The world is far too full of overworked parents, ‘hurried’, tired children, and ‘anything for a profit’ businesses for whom people are just a disposable asset, rather like computers or cars.
    And talking of assumptions, Stephanie, entering into a discussion about who does and does not want children, positions the subject as really relevant. Should that really be the case? Based on what the others are saying it should be no-one’s business but your own, surely?

    • “It’s no one’s business but your own” is an odd statement when this is a serious issue which impacts women’s lives, financially, socially, and psychologically.

      It’s like white people who say “oh I don’t see colour” – as though society will magically stop being racist if we just stop talking about the ways in which it is racist.

      Saying “whichever sex you are” is similarly wilfully-erasing of the reality. Yes, issues around flexible work and the cost of childcare affect fathers as well. But not as much as they affect mothers. Hence the well-documented gender pay gap and workplace discrimination against women.

      • JanM 8.1.1

        Stopping discussing women as though they are a race apart would be a good start – if you applied the sexism rules to the racism rules you are laying down you might see through a different lens. Every race and every sex has the good, the bad and the ugly, and it’s all too easy to take the moral high ground and cherry pick

    • …they are less and less inclined to deal with nits and sniffles and more inclined to demand that the unwell child be removed.

      Er, yes. And, good so. If your kid is in professional childcare with a couple of dozen others, a policy of removing any kid with something infectious is very much in your interest. Even with my kids’ childcare centre running that policy, my sick leave got thrashed in their first years there, both to cover their illnesses and for the ones they passed on to me. If the centre had operated a policy of keeping infectious kids on-site, things would have been a lot worse.

  9. James Thrace 9

    Daycares should be incorporated into retirement villages. It’s what used to happen in the old community based way of life. The elders looked after the mokopuna while the parents made hay during the day.

    Elderly would get lots of stimulation and pass on the manners and knowledge to kids.

    Unfortunately, there’s no profit to be had there so its unlikely to happen in the neoliberal hell we call Aoteraoa

    • upnorth 9.1

      James excellent idea – drop the neo stuff and your idea has merit – The body shop is based on profit and loss to survive so if an idea is good then money will be made.

    • Descendant Of Sssmith 9.2

      Or maybe we should stop putting our old people into expensive ghettos and keep them in the community to assist the families that live next door, etc.

      Of course it’s also quite evident that these old people ghettos are mainly a white privilege anyway.

      There’s a certain irony in referencing elders looking after mokopuna when it’s quite unlikely that Maori are in these retirement villages.

      Residential Care Subsidy is another area, like NZS, where there’s a high capture of state resource by pakeha.

      I’ve noted previously the resurgence of 70’s and earlier sexist behaviours being much more overt as the rise of conservatism has taken place.

      At least in the 80’s when I raised these issues there was some sort of progressive support and a desire to do better at a high level – these days you get marginalised and accused of being PC.

      It’s the willingness of senior managers in organisations to be overt about this stuff again and the unwillingness of young people to stand up against it that is worrying. That sense of powerlessness they (young people) have.

      The increasing dis-empowerment of beneficiaries is part of that building of powerlessness amongst the workforce as is the building of debt via student loans and high house prices and rents.

      Indebted is indentured.

  10. Charles 10

    I dated an early childhood teacher for 5 years. She wasn’t sick anymore times than anyone else. So the “hotbed of illness theory” is not proven.

    Author enquires what weird sexist questions men are asked. After being condescended to over my formal style of dress (style of clothes, not an actual dress), I was asked if I had a tidy home. Still for the life of me can’t figure out what it was that was being asked. Did it mean, was I married and did my wife stay home to do the cooking and cleaning i.e. do I support an sexist reality with women in their place and men the providers? Maybe it was an enquiry to sexual orientation? Only gay men dress suitably?

    Sure sexism is alive and well [insert anecdotal evidence of the “she’s either demure and timid or a ball-breaker” kind]. Woman seem to be allowed to be one or the other, but shock and gasping or uncomfortable humour is shown when they choose to be themselves.

    The whole problem could be avoided if employers weren’t so intent on breaking the laws that already exist, but are rarely enforced without great reluctance and drawn-out circumstance, everytime they want to do something. How’s about they advertise real jobs, for things that actually need doing, and hire someone to do that job? Then they won’t have to make up excuses about why they don’t like the look of your face or sound of your voice.

    • JanM 10.1

      She had probably, like me, developed an amazing immune system, and the ‘hotbed of illness’ thing is just the array of childhood upsets that used to be simply dealt with.

      • Sable 10.1.1

        Our little one bring home all sorts of bugs, I think my immune system and my wifes must be pretty robust by now too….(wink).

      • Charles 10.1.2

        ha, that reminds me of a woman I ran into at Ponsonby New World. I was using the tongs to get a pastry out of a cabinet and she made sure of my attention before forcefully but respectfully telling me I should use my hands, “People are too careful these days, it’s ruining our immune systems!”. Was that you?

        Should also add that after 5 years of dating that ECE teacher, including a rigourous schedule of discipline and character development formed by experience training stubborn children, she allowed my proposal of marriage.

  11. Sable 11

    I remember a friend of mines mum being asked if she had plans to get pregnant in the near future in a job interview for an executive position. This happened 25 or so years ago. It may be attitudes have changed little over time…….

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