Doing what I do for a living, I hear the topic of maternity leave, and the policies and attitudes surrounding it, being discussed all the time. The BBC are currently running an excellent two-parter entitled The Trouble With Working Women which is looking at this in the wider context of being competitive in the workplace.
But in all the discussions I have seen, I have never seen the most fundamental point being addressed: who else can have the babies? [I alluded to the hilarious Monty Python take on this issue here]. Whether you are a hard-core evolutionist or a hard-core creationist, you can agree that human beings seem to be programmed with the ‘perpetuate the species’ prime directive. And it would appear to me that a significant chunk of our lives as human beings centres around fulfilling that prime directive.

But what happens when prime directive meets profit motive? Knowing what we know about how powerful and effective women are in the knowledge economy, we look at societies which oppress women and shake our heads. “How primitive!” we say. “What an enormous lost opportunity for that society! They’re writing off 50% of their talent pool – how can they ever hope to compete with us?” But then I look at the maternity policies of the majority of employers and the attitudes those policies espouse in the organisations’ cultures and I think to myself, “At least the Taliban are up-front.”

We, as a society, been playing footsie with this issue since ‘Equality’ legislation hit the statute books; but we’ve never really had the conversation. In Ireland, in my lifetime, women had to give up their jobs when they got married. That was later relaxed to them having to give up their jobs as soon as they had a child. And then in 1973, the Employment Equality Act became the law of the land, precluding discrimination against an employee under nine headings:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Marital status
  • Family status
  • Sexual orientation
  • Religious beliefs
  • Race
  • Disability
  • Membership of the Traveller community
Nice theory – as long as you’re willing to wreck your career by taking a case against your employer for bugger-all compensation under Irish law. We had a little chat about this on Q102 the other day:

RSS Readers may need to click through to the post

I say again, we need to have this conversation at a national level and define where we stand on this issue as a people. Then we can write legislation reflecting that national consensus and deal with the consequences (if any) to our competitiveness in the global economy on that basis. Until then, we’re stuck with this ongoing, mealy-mouthed, pussyfooting, lip-service around the issue.

In Australia, there was legislation that allowed the state to remove Aboriginal children from their families at will – and this legislation was only overturned in the 1960s. In the country that describes itself as having, “The mother of all Parliaments,” they used to send small children up chimney pipes as sweeps. You’re not supposed to be able to get away with that kind of double standard any more. The world is smaller, we’re better-educated and information now moves instantaneously. All this is supposed to close the gap between what we as a society say and what we as a society do.

It’s time to have a grown-up conversation.

Related posts:
The glass ceiling
Motherhood and career?
Children – asset or liability?