By: Pauline Mukanza
Not too long ago, scrolling through my Facebook news feed, as I too often do, I came across a headline in the Guardian that angered me. The headline was “40% of managers avoid hiring younger women to get around maternity leave” and the article went on to say that companies “would rather employ a man in his 20s or 30s over a woman of the same age”. The fact that young women are less likely to be employed because of the stereotypes that women are seen as the main carers of children is not news to me, however it infuriates me. It infuriates me as a young woman who is trying to break into the job market, as a feminist, as a person of colour and as a human being.
Discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy or maternity leave is, and quite rightly so, illegal in the UK and it has been since October 2010. Pregnancy discrimination is also morally wrong and completely unacceptable but it still remains a reality for many of us. Young women are either at risk of being viewed as an economic liability to the company because they may or may not choose to bear children at a certain point in their lives or they are at risk of being categorised as a strange, anti-family people should they choose not to have children, and inform their (potential) employer about this. Such questions are illegal but again, still a part of our reality.
One of the ways to deal with this gender discrimination is to get the state more involved in childcare provision and more particularly, for the state to cover the cost of maternity and paternity leave. In this case, companies can carry on focusing on maximising their profits and not worrying about having to pay for months’ worth of salary with no productivity. Often, the businesses actually cannot afford parental leave because their margins are either too low or they do not have enough capital reserved to do so. In addition to this, all companies are trying to stay resilient in these tough economic times. If the state financially supports individuals on parental leave then the burden falls on a society that is of great solidarity.
A change in attitude is also an important factor to consider when combating the stereotype that young professional women are part of an unstable employee pool. Despite offering paid leave, women are still the main users of leave entitlement. However, from April 2015, parents in the UK can decide about how to divide up their parental leave. The proportion of all parental leave allocated to employed men compared to the leave allocated to employed women is a key indicator that links reconciliation between work, private and family life, to gender equality. This new legal provision is a welcomed step in the right direction but one which is well over due and is likely to lead us to a gendered trap.
Logically, socially and statistically women are more likely to take maternity leave even if it is equally available for men. If parental leave is organised along family lines, the use of parental leave by fathers comes out low. It is a feedback loop that discourages men from taking their share of maternity leave. However, whatever available data one chooses to look at on the use of paternity leave and shared parental leave, it is shown that the ratio of fathers taking paternity leave is higher than those taking parental leave.
In other words, if there is a choice of the division of parental leave the outcome is very likely to result in gendered discrimination against women – however, if there was legislated equal parental leave, that made it mandatory for both men and women to take leave, then that would create less space for companies to discrimination based on sex. Norway, for example, enacted mandatory paternal leave and the wage gap between men and women shrank from 20% to 8.1% between 1991 and 2010.
The reality is that at the moment in the UK, or from April 2015, we will have to make do with the option of non-allocated parental leave between men and women, as a proportion of all parental leave.
It is very disheartening to know that my job-hunting, like for so many other women, will probably be influenced by my perceived likely-to-have-children-in-the-next-few-years status. In the meantime, maybe young women can hope that companies will familiarise themselves with the cycle of life and start accepting it or perhaps I will still have to swear to my employer that my uterus will remain unoccupied in the next few years? But what I do hope people understand is that this is pure and simple sexism.
 European Institution for Gender Equality – Reconciliation of work and family life as a condition of equal participation in the labour market – Main Findings pp. 10
 Norway Has Found a Solution to the Gender Wage Gap That America Needs to Try: http://mic.com/articles/87983/norway-has-found-a-solution-to-the-gender-wage-gap-that-america-needs-to-try