Entries in "blog against sexism"

March 08, 2006

let this be the century when sexism ends

Today is Blog Against Sexism day, and as promised, I'm going to write something about pregnancy discrimination. It's by no means the only manifestation of sexism in our society, but it's one that I have thought about a lot over the last few years, especially since I began teaching my undergraduates the basics about nondiscrimination in employment interviewing.

In a great post on BlogHer about ten days back, Jory DesJardins told a story that sounded all too familiar to me:

Recently I helped a friend get a position at a firm where I knew the principals, who were both men. She already had a small child, and they'd agreed to flexible hours. She worked from home but was enormously structured, starting work at 5am to begin sales calls on the East Coast and taking breaks in the middle of the day to be with her daughter. The situation was working well, until she got pregnant again. Her voice was low and secretive when she called. "I'm pregnant," she nearly whispered. "Congratulations!" I said. She didn't sound as happy as I was for her.

"Thanks," she said. "I haven't said anything yet to my boss."

Sadly that is often what women think upon hearing such news--how do I make it look like having another life in the house won't have any effect on my work performance?

Yes, many employers consider it a bad thing if a worker gets pregnant, and it's such a short-term and narrow-minded point of view. Forget the joy of bringing a new life into the world, forget the long-term contribution that the mother and her social support system will make by raising a young citizen with untold promise, forget that all workers eventually retire and we do need, as a society, to nurture the next generation of productive workers... are you going to be able to deliver your tasks on time to me over the next six months?

I understand that it is disruptive to the normal flow of work to deal with someone going on maternity leave, to find a temporary replacement, to manage the uncertainties of when the new mother will be ready and able to return to full-time work. But let's not forget to be human when we are managers -- let's not forget to say "congratulations!" and mean it. After all, most women are already confronting a lot of stress and challenges when they are holding down a job and growing a baby simultaneously, especially in countries like Papua New Guinea and the United States, where they have no guarantee of paid maternity leave. The least you can do, as an employer, is not add to that stress with a selfish, short-term reaction to the news that an employee is expecting.

According to Carmen Armenti, many women academics either attempt to hide their pre-tenure babies by having May babies or delay having children until after they have earned tenure. In both situations, women are hiding their maternal desires to meet an unwritten professional standard that is geared toward the male life course. While I did not go this far with my first child, I did make a conscious effort not to conceive at a time when I would have gone on leave in the middle of a semester. I didn't want to develop relationships with students and then "leave them in the lurch" when I went into labor, and I didn't want to develop any complicated system for my colleagues to cover for me through the second half of a semester.

That many academic women feel these pressures to minimize the visibility of their motherhood and its impact on their work productivity in the first few months after childbirth is problematic, particularly since that many academics pursue long careers -- 30, 40, or sometimes even 50 years long. Why must their first 10 years follow a lock-step pattern of 4 years earning their doctorate, followed by 6 years of incredibly long hours spent on research, writing, and teaching, in order to earn tenure? Why must people who wish to pursue an academic career, but would prefer not to work 55, 65, or 75 hours a week, be treated as second-class citizens?

Many women entering professional work face these challenges, not just academic women. In consulting, twice as many women exit the big companies from the middle rungs of the career ladder as do men. In medicine, a whole wave of new entrants into the field are seeking ways to combine careers as doctors with family or other personal interests -- both men and women. The organizations which can figure out how to rework traditional male career patterns and create options for their professional employees, both male and female, are the ones which will succeed in retaining outstanding talent in the coming decades, when baby boomers will retire and there will be smaller numbers of new professionals entering the US workforce.

Let this be the century when biased attitudes toward working women who get pregnant fade away, replaced by an appreciation for the value that childbearing and parenting have in our society in the long term.

Let this be the century when shards of the shattered glass ceiling are swept up and shipped off to be recycled, and the maternal wall is demolished for good.

Let this be the century when employers learn to manage employees flexibly, allowing them to structure their own days so they can be most productive.

Let this be the century when women (whether mothers or not) come to be treated as true equals, in the workplace and in their homes, and our global society learns the meaning of equity.

Let this be the century when sexism ends.

(If you want to participate in Blog Against Sexism day, just make a post in your own blog, and put a tag on it that says "blog against sexism". Then you can read other posts made in honor of the cause via Technorati.)