A real screamer of an article from Eleanor Mills in the Sunday Times the other week. Given that it’s just another article chock full of feminism-blaming crap, it’s taken me a while to understand exactly why it annoyed me so much. Then I realised that in addition to being full of feminism-blaming crap (yawn), it is also a completely incoherent argument. Yes, more so than usual.
In a nutshell: women, eh? They never get enough do they? Always wanting more, Wanting a career and children (as in, oh, just like the author), wanting to not be discriminated against because they give birth! Pah! What next? Equal pay?? I paraphrase.
Let’s leave aside the fact that in the business Ms Mills is in – soft, this-is-what-and-my-middle-class-friends-think journalism, the rise of freelancing means that maternity leave is not going to be a big issue for her, and that flexible working hours can easily be arranged. Indeed, many female columnists seem to make their living writing about how they write whilst looking after children, a partner, a dog and several troublesome goldfish.
Leaving all that aside, Mills seems to be advocating that an employer should be able to ask a woman at an interview whether or not she intends to have children – and, if so, how much time she intends to take time off work to do so. What isn’t actually addressed it in the article is what an employer is supposed to be able to do with information given by a prospective female employee on whether or not she’ll have babies. Given Mills’ argument, the presumption must be that he is then perfectly allowed to discriminate against her on the basis of it – otherwise what’s the point in asking? Perhaps Mills would like to think about versing herself in the basics of sex discrimination law before writing any more articles advocating sex discrimination in its purest, most basic form. What she is in effect advocating is a situation where it will not be allowed to discrimate against all women, but it will be perfectly allowable to discriminate against those women who state in advance of getting a job that they intend (infertility, divorce and financial issues notwithstanding) to have children. Sounds great and extremely fair; well, for her and ‘Jane’ because, happily, they’ve already taken advantage of the benefits of the law as it currently stands. Ya boo sucks to everybody else. For the record, I was self-employed when I had both of my children and so was entitled to no maternity benefits whatsoever. Despite this, and in marked contrast to Mills and her ‘friends’, I do not begrudge those women who do have those benefits. Bringing up children is an important job and I, as a member of the society upon which those kids will eventually be unleashed, have a vested interest in supporting any measures which enable people to do it as well as possible.
Let’s look at ‘angry Jane’. What the fuck is she so angry about exactly? Her husband looks after her kids full-time and she has a job she loves and which pays enough to support her family and she’s entirely happy being the breadwinner. Seems maybe Mills has a point that women always want more. Her ‘gripe’? ‘That legislation designed to protect women is now killing them with kindness.’ Fiercely (well, it would be fiercely wouldn’t it? she’s one of those ‘career women’), Jane argues that she doesn’t want ‘special pleading’ or ‘flexible hours’. Now ‘Jane’ has already had her children – and, one can only presume, her maternity leave – so I have clearly missed the legislation which makes it mandatory for women to work flexible hours contrary to their wishes (and forces this on them even if their children already have full-time paternal care). Or indeed force them to be ‘specially pled’ to. But I really should look that last one up, because there are days when I would love somebody to specially plead to me. Given that the rest of the article seems to deal with the issue of maternity leave, I’m not quite sure of the relevance of ‘Jane’s’ anger (and I still don’t have a clue why she is angry, having what seems to be a pretty tip top life).
So what is the article’s take on maternity leave then? Well, given that Mills has also already took advantage of two lots of maternity leave returning to work ‘after six months or so‘, it seems that her argument is thus: I’ve had my benefits, so I’ll now pontificate on why you can’t have ’em as well. Again, it’s far from clear whether Mills is advocating for a complete ban on maternity leave or is just saying she thinks women get too much maternity leave and that this shouldn’t be allowed – at least unless your employer is a very nice man who is happy for you to take ‘six months or so’ and then lets you ‘labour from home one day a week’. Let’s say she’s arguing the latter; she illustrates this with ‘new research’ which states that ‘there is an enormous stalling in women’s careers’ in countries with good maternity leave provision. I’m not sure that this will be news to any women who’s actually taken maternity leave (outside media la la land), but ho-hum. Killed with kindness indeed. New or not, this remains undoubtedly true – the upwards trajectory of any woman’s career tends to do a backflip when she swans off to have kids. The obvious question seems to me to then be: what can we do about this? how can we stop mothers being discriminated in this indirect way for having kids? That does not seem to be the question, however, to Mills. The question to her appears to be: so how do we stop women needing time off to have kids? The answer seems to be: allow employers to discriminate against them before they even get a job by allowing them to ask a woman’s intentions at interview. Which is kind of neat when you think about it, because if any woman who is even considering having kids can be weeded out from the kick off, then it’ll be impossible to discriminate against them, eh? Voila! Problem solved. I’m not sure what Mills would propose for those women who change their mind and decide to have kids after they’ve got a job, but presumably putting them up against the wall and allowing them a final cigarette would be somewhere on the list of options.
Mills’ reasoning for allowing employers to ask for a woman’s child-bearing intentions? Well, some women – the lovely ‘Jane’ again and an MBA called Susan Ledger (who again, has already had three kids, so what does she care about maternity leave, suckers!), who is ‘increasingly irritated’ by ‘the pink elephant in the interview room’, the pink elephant presumably being the issue of maternity leave – which is what we were talking about, weren’t we, Ms Mills? – but Ledger’s gripe seems unrelated to that issue. She is instead concerned that employers don’t believe her when she says she ‘welcome[s] the challenge of a full-on career’ and that ‘[her] voice is being drowned out by women who want to reduce their hours.‘
Sorry? Again, I’m unsure how this relates to maternity leave provisions. Leaving aside the fact that many women don’t get any real choice as to whether to reduce their hours, what’s your fucking point? Ledger already has three kids (count ’em) and presumably, settled childcare arrangements. If this high-flying MBA no less can’t convince an employer at an interview that she really wants the job, then let’s hope she’s not in sales. Crock. Of. Shit.
Really, I’ve almost given up trying to wade through this wispy, washy effluvia.
But no, she’s not finished. In the event, that some women manage to slip the net and actually get a good job and then still have a baby (for shame!), an employer should then be able to ask her precise intentions regarding her maternity leave and whether she’ll come back, and Mills sympathises with a City lawyer who was recently subjected to disciplinary action because he wanted to question a woman who had just had a baby to ‘identify her commitment, hours she is prepared to do, how she will balance work and child etc’. Nothing wrong in this, explains Mills, because City lawyers are expected to work ‘bonkers hours’ so why shouldn’t she explain ‘how she was going to make it work…?’ How about because presumably the lawyer is a pretty bright woman who wouldn’t be applying for the job if she didn’t think she could make it work? How about because it’s none of their fucking business? How about because her male counterparts can have fourteen kids and triplets on the way and nobody would even think to ask them how they were going to make it work? That’s right – because it’s fucking sexist. Look up the definition of ‘indirect discrimination’ and you’ll see that it’s basically ‘making a woman jump through a hoop a man wouldn’t have to’.
How about this: when maternity leave becomes ‘parental leave’ and society changes beyond recognition to the point that both sexes would be believed when they stated an intention to look after their kids full-time or, conversely, never see their kids in daylight, then you can ask these questions freely and happily. Until then, I can merely long for the day when Mills goes back to writing about whether or not her breasts are fashionable this season and leaves topics which can actively damage women who may not happen to enjoy the privileges she takes for granted alone. Aah, but I can dream.
One last point: this lovely little nugget from Mills: ‘The abuse women hurl at one another over the choices they make is vitriolic; wars between stay-at-home mums and the working breed are toxic and available at any mums’ forum you might care to visit.’ In a lovely bit of serendipity, I cared, at random, to visit the best known one, Mumsnet. A quick search revealed a thread exactly on this topic, discussing an article in a childcare magazine in which a stay-at-home mother revealed that, in her opinion, working mothers were guilty of a form of child abuse. The comments from these ‘vitriolic’ mothers? Overwhelming annoyance at the media habit of trying to pit the two kinds of mother against each other and fuel a non-existent divide. The vast majority of comments were supportive of a mother’s choice to work or not.