Parental Leave and Sexism
There’s been a bit of a twitterstorm about the story of a ‘techie mom’ who overheard a conversation between two presumed IBM executives on the subject of hiring women. Their view was, don’t do it: they have the temerity to take time off to have children. Written up in a more detail as a blog, the comments at the end are, in some cases, as shocking as the reported conversation. (I will, unlike some of the commenters, assume it is accurate reporting. However, even if it weren’t the case, the remarks are sufficiently unsurprising to form a good basis for discussion).
I am always surprised by the fact people hold up the US as being ahead of the UK when it comes to female employment. The absence of statutory maternity leave means that child-bearing is bound to remain a contentious issue. Having to use up holiday time simply to allow one’s body to recover after birth, seems to me all wrong. Being forced to make complex and difficult choices, whilst still adjusting to a totally new way of life and an imbalance of hormones, is equally unreasonable. The existence of statutory maternity leave (with pay) removes many of these sorts of pressures the new mother may otherwise feel. The UK system may be far from perfect but it is an awful lot better than the default US position. Of course some employers have good (if voluntary) policies, but it is not the norm and it is not simply a right. How can the States progress to thinking about parental rights when they are still so hung up about maternity leave?
The agenda has moved on in the UK, at least a little. The battle over maternity leave is won in principle, although the generosity of what is granted and paid for varies hugely between employees. There is now a shift to considering paternity leave, with new statutory rights around this which have yet really to be taken up in any significant way but which provide some flexibility in who takes time off when. Nevertheless, taking such leave may still lead to significant financial consequences that cannot always be borne by a family.
But perhaps we need to stop thinking in these terms and simply talk about parental leave. There are all kinds of reasons which mean that typically it will be the woman who wants to take the leave, particularly in the weeks after the birth, but why not give complete flexibility over the entire period so that each couple can make the choice that works for them (and ideally extend entitlement to some more limited leave for later on in the child’s life)? One of the reasons I think this switch could be so significant is that, if it becomes normal for men to take extended periods off then employers won’t be able to make crude judgements about ‘let’s not hire her, she might have a baby‘ because they will have to factor in ‘let’s not hire him, his partner might have a baby‘. They couldn’t even think in terms of ‘child-bearing age’ since men can in principle father children at any age.
Now I know, as at least one of the commenters on the blog I cited says, one has to be pragmatic about the difficulties any kind of statutory leave could cause a company with a small workforce. Small companies could (as some currenty do) undoubtedly face difficulties if a significant proportion of their staff all happened to have children and take leave simultaneously, but the conversation being reported was allegedly about IBM. Such caveats can hardly apply to that giant of a company. Furthermore, those sectors where the workforce has particular skills which are likely to be in short supply and hard to replace on maternity/parental leave cover, are also the ones where one might expect them to wish to invest for the long term. This is certainly the case for faculty in universities. People once on or beyond tenure-track would not be switching institution every year and hopping around for the sake of it. There is an investment on both sides. Individuals are also more likely to stick around for a decent length of time, rendering their absence on parental leave but a small proportion of the time they are actively serving the company, if they are treated with respect. Those companies that put the squeeze on qualified staff are likely to be the ones that see the best depart to their more friendly competitors.
The story which prompted this post is specifically about a computing company. I have read about too many horror stories in the techie field (see here for my thoughts on an earlier shocker) to find this episode hard to imagine. I don’t know why it is that coders are more prone to misogyny than other fields of work. Possibly if the percentage of women ever rose in the field then the atmosphere would improve, but that sounds like a bit of a catch-22 situation. What is going to happen to all those children who are now – in the UK – to be brought up to speed from the start of primary school with coding? Will this early exposure to the tools of the trade mean the proportions of girls taking computing at a university reach the high level that was the norm when the field was young? One can only hope so. But if sexist comments continue to be tossed around then it may remain the case the numbers of women employed in the industry itself will not grow swiftly.
One can argue, as again one of the commenters on the original blog did, that eavesdropping is a bad habit and that private conversations should be treated as just that, private. Nevertheless, executives who think and say, however privately, ‘let’s not hire women’ are hardly likely to be pushing to increase the proportion of women in their company. They may keep their lips sealed during recruitment, for fear of justifiable recriminations, but I would not reckon they’d be the ones recommending minorities for employment. So, whereas it may be right and proper that no action be taken against individuals talking ‘off the record’, it is equally right for attention to be drawn to the issues that such comments highlight. Only by making such behaviour completely beyond the pale will we, as a society, make real progress, and we’re a long way off from that happy state as yet.