Penalised for being a mother?

Research showing mothers are discriminated against is - sadly - hardly surprising, reports Emma De Vita.

by Emma De Vita
Last Updated: 14 Aug 2013

More than a quarter of mothers in the UK feel discriminated against at work, says legal firm Slater & Gordon, which surveyed almost 2,000 working women. Of this 25%, nearly half felt overlooked for a promotion, 18% felt demoted and 35% had had responsibility taken from them. Yet mothers are a stoic bunch. Despite the discrimination, only 30% made a formal complaint.

Why is this kind of soul-destroying news more likely to be met with a shrug than outrage by women who continue with their careers after they have children? Most women will have to contend with low level sexism through their adult years, not least in the workplace (see the Everyday Sexism Project) but the first time you detect a change in the way people regard you because you’re performing the miracle of creating the next generation of UK plc (ie pregnant) still comes a shock.

How you handle comments that leave you feeling embarrassed or awkward is a matter of personal preference but there usually comes a point when you just start to shrug them off, preferring to reserve your precious energy to get your job done rather than waste it on anger or frustration. Unwilling to be labelled a difficult woman and not wanting to jeopardise your precious job at a time when security is never more important, it’s easier to laugh it off than rock the boat.

This might be why the Slater & Gordon survey found that two-thirds of mothers would advise pregnant women to wait until the last possible moment to tell their bosses they are expecting. In fact, the firm found that close to 60% of them felt like their pregnancy was a problem for their workplace, while more than a quarter felt under pressure to return to work earlier than they wanted to.

This comes as a slap in the face for those bright young(ish) things who may never have expected to be treated differently by their colleagues when they announced their pregnancy, yet unfortunately, for many it’s just the thin edge of the wedge. Returning to work after you’ve had a child can leave you open to the sort of sexism that you thought had left the office along with Dynasty-style shoulderpads and Filofaxes. Yet many unlucky women will be punished for daring to reproduce, as this survey only serves to confirm.

The government and business leaders must realise urgently that the situation cannot continue as it is. We are alienating whole generations of women who become so fed up with corporate life that they would rather opt out, unwilling to put up the demoralising comments or set up on their own. Good economics and a sense of morality dictates that mothers we treated equally and just as fairly as men and women without children. The ‘them and us’ attitude that characterises many offices fosters a demoralising resentment amongst both sides – something a recent Red survey picked up on.

Red’s Generation Juggle survey questioned 5,396 working women with and without children, and found that four in 10 working women without children believe that they work harder that their female colleagues who are mothers. Yet this contrasts with the Slater & Gordon research that found that 35% of mothers thought they worked harder since having children. The tension must be resolved – talk must be replaced with action.

MT would love to hear from working mothers about your experiences. Please email emma.devita@haymarket.com Are you one of the lucky ones who works with an enlightened bunch of colleagues? Or are you one of the ones who has to grin and bear it? Let us know.

[Just to point out, the author is about to leave her colleagues in the lurch for yet another year’s maternity leave – Ed]

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