The founder of Mother Pukka, Anna Whitehouse, asks why we’re reluctant to quiz potential employers about our maternity rights.
“Do you have any questions?” I remember being asked, aged 24, during an interview for a position on a male-dominated business-to-business magazine. And sitting in that testosterone-fuelled, strip-lit office I had many questions, with a pressing one being, what would happen if I popped a sprog out?
I wasn’t even going out with anyone and certainly wasn’t thinking of getting knocked-up anytime soon. But knowing what the future might hold if I decided to follow Mother Nature’s well-trodden path was still up there with holiday, pensions and a 20% gym-membership discount.
And that’s surely not a strange request? Yet in all 13 interviews I’ve tackled in my life, I’ve never been bold enough to ask, “what’s your maternity package like?”
I’ve also never been offered the information, despite the streams of other bonus balls that are dangled to tempt talent.
Not only have I not asked the question, I’ve made a conscious effort to not be held back by my marital status – in the same way male candidates aren’t. I’ve removed my engagement ring (men don’t wear them) and used my maiden name in a CV.
I’ve also been tight-lipped about boyfriends and ensured that I give off the air of a dedicated, career-focused businesswoman whose ovaries are more resistant to Pampers ads than the candidate before. A candidate who more closely resembles a man.
A man who – despite shared parental leave being available – won’t require a year off to raise a small human. A man who won’t then need to tend to that human when the Norovirus sweeps through daycare.
No, it’s much safer to have a head-in-the-sand approach and ignore the maternal elephant in the room.
As a close friend put it recently: “women must pretend they don’t have a job when at home and that they don’t have a family when at work.”
Now I’m sitting on the other side of the fence with a daughter to my name, I can see how destructive that approach is.
There’s still some form of misplaced shame associated with being a woman who wants a career and family.
“I worked in HR in a big banking firm in the city,” says Sophie Morley-Taylor, a former HR assistant. “I found a folder with a list of names of women who had recently got engaged or married across the company and queried what it was for, wondering innocently if they were getting some kind of small gesture from the powers that be.
“The reality was they weren’t up for promotion because of their chance of procreation. I was appalled and handed in my notice a week later without a job to go to – I wanted to work in HR to work with people, not to discriminate against them.”
I found a folder with a list of names of women who had recently got engaged or married across the company.
Despite all that Emmeline Pankhurst et al. have done, we remain in the 1950s in the majority of employers’ eyes.
A recent post on my Instagram (@mother_pukka) asked people to share their experience of the interview process. It unveiled many similar, equally galling stories.
“I had a male recruitment consultant refuse to ask about the maternity policy for a job I was going for because he thought it would send the wrong impression,” says Clare Austen.
“I got asked if I was a) pregnant or b) planning on getting pregnant because they couldn’t afford another maternity cover. It was for a maternity-cover teaching job,” adds Vicki Rendall.
Lucie Mayer continues: “I once got asked in an interview ‘do you have a boyfriend? Are you looking to have any children any time soon? When I answered ‘no’, he said, ‘wonderful!’”
Even female recruiters admit they’ve advised other women “never to ask about maternity packages for fear of losing the role to someone else.” One female interviewer went a step further: “I hate to admit it but I made a decision to employ someone because she was too old to have children, so I wouldn’t have to deal with maternity cover or leave.”
So of course, we’re all staying mum on the subject.
And it’s not just a smattering of women dodging the question. The Maternity Benefits Survey by Glassdoor spoke to 1,000 women and found that 78% do not ask about maternity packages at the interview stage of applying for a job.
The majority had fears that aligned with the above comments, while 15% felt it might prevent them from getting a fair salary. Even after a new job has been secured, just 32% said they were offered information about maternity in their induction pack, while 13% had to actively ask for it because it was not published anywhere in the business.
And it doesn’t end at ‘potential procreation’ – when you actually have a child, running the interview gauntlet becomes even more of a disguise act. Hiding intentions of procreation is breezy in comparison to hiding an actual human.
But still I managed it when interviewing for a job at one global company with my one-year-old stashed away in a nearby café with my mum. I didn’t dare mutter anything that hinted at my maternal status. I was being interviewed by a brilliant woman who had joked early on in the interview she never wanted children, so I matched my answers to her personal life goals.
At the end of the day, parenthood is not simply a vanity project. It’s about working on life, and to be chopped out of the job market for taking on Mother Nature’s biggest task takes us back to the Dark Ages. If we continue to flip between being family-focused or career-minded, we’re ultimately going to lose at both.
That change can be as simple as an employer mentioning maternity benefits in the same sentence as holiday. It can be as simple as not looking for engagement rings and subconsciously striking someone off the list for fear of procreation. It’s as simple as the word ‘paternity’ being used as much as ‘maternity’.
We should all feel able to talk as openly about paternity benefits as we do about other company perks.
And until that happens, the world of work will continue to represent a grossly unequal playing field.
Want more flexible working?
Earlier this year, recruitment company Timewise launched Hire Me My Way – a national initiative to unlock access to better jobs for the millions of British part-time and flexible workers. It offers free guidance on how to find part-time work, tips on how to ask for flexibility during the interview process, and also free career advice sessions with HR specialists.