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Discriminating against women in job interviews is illegal - so why is it still happening?

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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A disturbing new study shows over a third of employers believe it is reasonable to ask a woman if she plans to have children in the future during a job interview. When will it end?

There are many questions you can expect to be asked during a job interview.

Why do you want this role? What unique skills can you offer? How do you think you will fit in with the rest of the company?

As with most work-related issues, however, the interview stage of the recruitment process does not offer a level playing field between men and women. Not only will women have to consider the gender pay gap in their potential new place of work, they might also be faced with deeply personal questions about their hopes for the future during an interview – and giving the “wrong” answer could cost them the job.

Are you planning on starting a family soon? How many children do you want? Are you trying to get pregnant, or are you pregnant right now?

It’s an absurd line of questioning, and one that should have no place in a job interview – after all, a woman is equally capable of fulfilling a role whether she wants to have two children, six children, or none at all. Yet a disturbing new study from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), conducted by YouGov, found that over a third (36%) of private sector employers believe it is perfectly reasonable to ask a woman about her plans to have children during a job interview.

Not only that, but a further 6 in 10 employers (59%) believe a woman should have to state whether she is pregnant during the recruitment process, and 46% agree that it is fair to ask whether a woman has young children.

Six in 10 employers believe a woman should have to state whether she is pregnant during the recruitment process

This in itself is obviously bad enough, but let’s consider the resulting discrimination that comes hand-in-hand with “admitting” you are pregnant, or hoping to become pregnant in the future. The same study found 44% of employers believe that women who have more than one pregnancy while working in the same job can be a “burden” to their team, while some 40% claimed to have witnessed at least one pregnant woman “take advantage” of her pregnancy at work.

And all of this prejudice boils down to the same, very real issue: approximately one third of employers believe both pregnant women and new mothers are “generally less interested in career progression” than other employees (read: men).

And as journalist, Jeena Sharma, 26, discovered this pre-conceived, sexist notion can lead an employer to view hiring a woman as a “risk”.

“I was invited for an interview by the (female) editor of an upcoming luxury/fashion magazine, and the questions were initially pretty standard” she tells stylist.co.uk. “But eventually the interviewer proceeded to ask me if I was married or planning on getting married, or have a family.

“The line of questioning felt strange and unexpected, and I was taken aback by how nonchalant she seemed, even though the questions were clearly inappropriate and sexist. I was offended, of course, but I was also afraid I wouldn’t get the job, so I simply said no, I wasn’t planning on starting a family or getting married. I’m not proud of it.

“The interviewer then went on to explain they needed to know these things since they were a new magazine and didn’t want to take ‘any risks’ while building their core team.”

Jeena didn’t end up getting the job, but the interview experience has stuck with her ever since.

“I regret not having done more,” she says. “Since then, every time an interviewer has asked me a similar question, I have point blank refused to answer. We need to collectively stand up to these issues.”

Adding that she believes there should be “zero tolerance” for these “regressive mindsets”, Jeena says, “it astounds me how normalised these problematic attitudes are – to an extent that even women don’t feel any shame asking these questions of other women.”

Another woman, who wished to remain anonymous, disclosed to stylist.co.uk that she felt she had no choice but to lie when asked about her plans to start a family during a job interview.

“I was asked if I was pregnant during a job interview, and then whether I was trying for a baby,” she says. “I denied that I was trying, when in actual fact I was. I knew I would have no chance of getting the job if I confirmed their fears.”

Sadly, it appears she was right to worry.

“I have also been put under immense pressure following a miscarriage,” she adds. “I was told that my work was ‘no longer up to my previous standard’ before being forced out of my role.”

“I point blank refuse to answer questions about my plans to start a family.”

This treatment of women is not only insulting, demeaning and rude – it’s illegal. The Sex Discrimination Act, introduced in 1975, makes it unlawful to discriminate against women in job interviews, while The Employment Protection Act, which kicked off in the same year, makes it illegal to sack a woman because she is pregnant.

Of course, as we have seen, the existence of such laws makes depressingly little difference to how employers actually treat women. And in a country where maternity discrimination is rife, the figures from EHRC should come as no real shock. Back in 2015, another study by the EHRC found that around one in nine mothers had been fired, made compulsorily redundant or treated so poorly at work that they had no choice but to resign. Although maternity discrimination is illegal in the UK, the cost of taking an employer to a tribunal can be huge, meaning that most cases are settled out of court – resulting in gagging orders that prevent women from speaking out about their experiences.

Following the findings from their most recent study, Rebecca Hilsenrath, Chief Executive of the EHRC, tells stylist.co.uk the organisation is aware that pregnancy and maternity discrimination continues to have “serious consequences in the workplace”.

“Recruitment decisions should be made on finding the best person for the job, not candidates’ protected characteristics (such as gender, age, or marital status). Yet it’s clear that many employers are still living in the dark ages when it comes to their attitudes towards working women.

“The fact that a third (36%) of private sector employers agree that it is reasonable to ask women about their plans to have children in the future during recruitment is shocking and highlights why it’s important that we draw attention to these antiquated views that need to change. And now.”

To this end, the EHRC is pushing forward with its Working Forward initiative, encouraging employers to work to eliminate these attitudes once and for all. And we need all employers – both male and female – to start making progress on this issue if we are ever going to reach gender parity. After all, unless science makes some pretty groundbreaking discoveries in the future, being discriminated against for the simple biological fact of having the ability to carry a child is a burden that no man will ever have to bear.

“It’s time we saw this issue stamped out for good,” the EHRC representative adds. We couldn’t agree more.

Images: iStock