Rebecca Kamm

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Rebecca Kamm: Employers still asking women about baby plans

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It's illegal for employers to ask women about their baby plans.Photo / Thinkstock
It's illegal for employers to ask women about their baby plans.Photo / Thinkstock

It occurred to me some months ago I'd reached an age that, for many employers, might spell trouble. Or: p.r.e.g.n.a.n.c.y.

"Planning children any time soon?"

Ask around: you're bound to know a (female) someone who's been asked that loaded and prohibited question. And even when it's not verbalised, what's to stop an employer choosing a 30-year-old male candidate over his female counterpart, for that very reason? Not a lot. Nothing.

Obviously there's zero way of knowing how often it's asked - evidence can only ever be anecdotal. So here's mine, direct from the mouths of women I know:

"I've been asked directly, 'I know I'm not allowed to ask this, but are you planning on having kids soon?'"

"An interviewer asked me what I 'thought' about babies."

"I've been asked. I've also been told I was a liability to the business when I was pregnant, and recently missed out on a potential job because my child is 'too young' - nearly three."

"I've been asked by an employer what my childcare arrangements were going to be when I was three months pregnant and freelance."

"I've been asked about childcare arrangements, specifically if I had to work nights or weekends since I'm a single working mother."

So how are women dealing?

Experienced recruiter Emma Espiner says she's witnessed female candidates address the issue proactively, as though to tackle the elephant in the room before it can tackle them:

"I have interviewed plenty of women who have volunteered that information. Usually it's prefaced by 'I'll be really upfront and tell you.' I always wondered if it was a preemptive thing, as my area of recruitment [at that stage] tended to be mostly youngish women. As in, perhaps they felt pressure to answer that unspoken - and illegal - question because of their age and stage."

A recent study of 1,712 married and engaged women found 35 per cent frequently take off their wedding or engagement rings at work, in case they decrease the chance of a promotion.

An additional third said they take their rings off when going for a job interview.

Is hiding the "evidence" of your (presumed) life plan necessary? Does the perceived risk reflect reality? One thing is undeniable: whether employers avoid female employees of "child bearing age" once in a while, or far more frequently that we could ever imagine, damaging assumptions around women and childcare are reinforced each and every time.

That babies are women's work. That women will ultimately lose interest in their careers - or be unable to commit to regular work - with a family. That a fulfilling work-life is only ever, and can only ever be, a second priority for women, after family and the home.

It's not hard to see it from an employers' perspective: hiring requires resources, energy and time. You want to minimise risk; make life easier for yourself. That makes perfect, albeit unfortunate, sense. But it also makes an entire demographic feel genuine panic with the fear of forced professional suicide.

Imagine if employers loosened their fearful grip on immediate gain, and recognised their role in shaping a female-friendly economy. The traditional linear career model - cultivated by and geared towards men's uninterrupted working lives - might begin to morph. Flexibility in the workplace might increase. The notion that unalterable working hours are the ideal working prototype might vanish.

There's little value trying to predict who will breed when, anyway. Not all married women want children, and single women have been known to get pregnant too (shocker!). As have older women - and women who already have grown up children. And that 45-year-old guy you just hired? He might suddenly take off for a better paid job, or decide to do the OE he never ticked off in his 20s. He might even leave to be a stay-at-home dad, if you can fathom that.

Ironically, a female applicant yet to start a family could be the best bet of all: hyper aware of keeping her career on track, and hyper vigilant when it comes to to proving her commitment. Fear will do that to a girl.

Follow Rebecca Kamm on Twitter.

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