In a job interview many years ago now, I was asked the unacceptable question which, according to recent research, the majority of employers still, inexplicably, believe it is acceptable to ask.
“Jane Bradley....” muttered the senior editor who was interviewing me, casting his eyes down my CV. “Hmm. So, is there … a … Mr Bradley on the scene?” Once he’d dropped that little bombshell and before I managed to successfully close my mouth or come up with a suitable response, he followed it up with the kicker, “And … um … regarding that. What are your … future plans?”
I was offered the job, so I obviously gave the right answers, but that is not the point. Would he have asked a man in his 20s the same question? Only he could answer that definitively, but I think it is unlikely.
My friend had a similar experience when, aged 22, she was asked quite candidly by a prospective employer in an interview for her first PR role if she was “planning to get pregnant within the next year”.
Both of these were well over a decade ago and, admittedly, times have changed – or they should have done. Back then, I was shocked, but laughed it off with my friends in the pub as a quirk of the pre-historic interviewer. Now? I’d be out of the door and heading up the stairs to Human Resources before you could say “employment tribunal”.
In a world where there is strict legislation against age discrimination, race discrimination, gender discrimination and many more, it is hard to believe that employers do not realise they are breaking the law by posing these personal questions to prospective employees.
A study, published this week by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, found a third of private sector employers agree that it is reasonable to ask women about their plans to have children in the future during the recruitment process.
Anecdotally, I would argue that even many employers who know it is not acceptable to ask these questions, do wonder. Many of them are potentially more likely, if everything else is equal, to give the job to someone who they believe – through whatever means – is not going to decide to grow their family while in their employment.
Of course, in the current climate in the UK, that should not, in theory, mean a difference between men and women. Our laws now give as much parental leave rights to men as to women. Equally, people who are adopting, be they single, a heterosexual couple or a gay couple, would have the same rights to a year off work.
The current regulations mean that if I got pregnant tomorrow (note to my current employer – not that it’s any of your business – but I’m not planning to), legally it would be just as likely that my husband would take the best part of a year off work as me. Except that there would be no chance that he would have to discuss that in a job interview, or with his existing boss. In fact, he wouldn’t need to even tell his employer until 21 days before I was due to give birth,
to ensure his statutory paternity leave was processed by his firm’s HR department.
A woman, however – through nobody’s fault except that swine, biology – would find it harder to keep a pregnancy a secret at work. Even in the early stages, there are potentially appointments to attend, acute sickness to cover up, a burgeoning bump to disguise.
In my case, when I was pregnant six years ago, but had not yet had a scan or announced the news at work, it was a request from the newsdesk to go out and buy a pair of “Pippa pants” – that padded bottom underwear which enjoyed a surge in popularity when Pippa Middleton’s pert behind attracted attention during the royal wedding – which blew my cover. My secret was out when I had to explain why the before and after photo shoot wouldn’t work very well with a pair of maternity jeans and a burgeoning bump.
Yet, sadly, we partially have ourselves to blame for the fact that while a man could take as much time off work to care for his baby as a woman, this is not acknowledged by many, let alone people who have the power to hire young women.
Figures released by the UK Government’s Department for Business earlier this month showed that take-up of the current incarnation of shared parental leave – introduced nearly three years ago – “could be as low as two per cent”. The existing scheme allows parents to share 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay after they have a baby, either separately or at the same time.
With so few men taking up their chance to co-parent, employers have not yet made the sea change in their heads from post-baby leave being something for a mother, rather than for a parent.
Many were up in arms in New Zealand when new prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced her pregnancy last month – a pregnancy which must, pointed out some mathematically minded observers, have begun right in the middle of the election campaign.
How would she manage? Would her commitment to her role suffer? Male leaders who have had babies during their term in parliament have not faced such questions and Ms Ardern knew it.
“I’m just pregnant, not incapacitated,” she said. After a statutory six-week period to allow her to recover from the birth, during which time her deputy will take over her duties, Ms Ardern’s husband is planning to be a stay at home dad and look after the baby while she returns to work, something that should be very normal, but for some reason still comes as something as a surprise to many.
It might not be the right solution for every couple or every family, but until we start taking advantage of the equality laws which have been put in place to help us, we will find it difficult to change attitudes of others.