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Lucy Mangan: "A job or a baby shouldn't be a choice"

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"Would you like to have a baby? One day, maybe? Would you like a boy or a girl? Oh, good choice! Or would you rather have a job? What do you mean you didn’t think you had to choose? Dear me. You young girls! You’d think you imagined you were living in 2013 or something.

Recent analysis of various figures by the House of Commons Library has revealed that up to 50,000 of the 340,000 women a year who exercise their (absolute, legal) right to a year’s maternity leave are denied the most crucial part of that right – not to have their jobs taken away or rendered unrecognisable as the same one while they are otherwise (and, I say once again, fully legitimately) engaged.

So, to be fair, only about 14% of women who go on maternity leave will get clobbered. But I can’t help but think that the worry of becoming a part of that statistic will affect almost 100% of women in the workplace, currently up-duffed or not. When you’re contemplating that kind of change to your life, a roughly one-in-seven chance of becoming an economic casualty thereafter looms.

One of the greatest marks, I think, of a civilised society is that it enables its members to make certain major life decisions free of external considerations. The NHS, for example, is a great and shining beacon on civilisation because it allows people to choose to go to the doctor, to maintain their health without having to worry about whether they can afford it or not. A society that has an NHS is saying, in essence, that some things are so important that a price cannot be put on them in the usual fashion. Instead, we will take collective responsibility for these things and together we will have something that makes life better for all.

Having children is one of those things. It’s not quite as clear-cut because, biology being what it is, only women give birth and it has been hard, historically, for us to keep in mind that a) men are involved at the beginning and, increasingly, after the labour bit, b) women are still people even when something is growing in their tum-tums and c) repopulation is quite important if you want your species and your sales to flourish. It is profoundly wrong and unfair that such an important part of life can be so hugely influenced by something so manifestly within society’s control.

50,000 women being denied their legal rights is just the tip of the iceberg

Maternity leave and related anti-discrimination legislation is there to allow women as free a choice as possible about when to have children (if they even want to). It’s supposed to enable you and your partner to listen to your heads, your hearts and various potent, bubbling, chaotic combinations of the two without having to worry about the harm other people’s prejudices might cause you. It’s a way of mitigating what can be mitigated so that you have the proper time and space to consider your decision.

These 50,000 women every year are a demonstration that women are still, to some varying degree, only in the workplace under sufferance. This is not to say that employers don’t behave illegally and inhumanely to men – I’m sure we all have male friends and colleagues who were effectively ousted after illness or taking time off to care for a sick family member – just that this is a variant of it that they don’t have to face on top of their share of the injustices that fall on the sexes equally. This is not just a figure to chill the heart of those who think they might one day like to be pregnant but not imminently unemployed, but for anyone who has any interest in fairness. Which is all of us, not even necessarily out of altruism but out of common sense. To have confidence that a world in which employers are still effectively allowed to take a pick-and-mix approach to which legislation they follow will be one in which company caprice will always work out in your favour is a sign of pathological arrogance at best and insanity at worst.

50,000 women a year being denied their legal rights is the tip of the iceberg. Under it will be thousands more being similarly treated because of their race, creed, colour, disability or because their new boss just doesn’t like the cut of their jib. Even if you don’t care about them, can you really say you know that none of the above will ever relate to you?”

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