When Sarah, a 32-year-old clinical officer, got a job offer in 2017, she was elated by the opportunity. Her joy was however short-lived after the CEO called her to confirm whether she might want more children in the future. Being a young mother of one, the opportunity was withdrawn since the very thought of paying her for maternity leave was not palatable for the organization. After she gave birth to her second baby, she was called for another interview where her ability to juggle motherhood and work formed the largest part of the conversation with the panel. She did not get the job.
You may have not heard of it but this discriminatory practice is known as the motherhood penalty. It argues that working mothers encounter systematic disadvantages in pay, perceived competence and benefits as compared to men and women without children. Financial Times estimates that taking time off to raise a family or deciding to work part-time will reduce women’s average pension wealth by about 47 per cent compared to men’s in a Pensions Policy Institute study.
Other studies have shown that visibly pregnant women are perceived to be less committed to their jobs, less authoritative, less dependable, more irrational and more emotional than equal non pregnant female colleagues. This has led to widespread discrimination towards pregnant women and mothers with less likelihood of hiring and promotions.
Grace Njeri, a 28-year-old waitress, is only too familiar with this unfair practice. According to her, the hospitality industry is one of the worst hit areas. During her first pregnancy, she was let go from work as soon as her bump started showing. They cited redundancy only for them to hire another lady for her role.
“In this industry it’s not just about the ability to work while pregnant. They also look at how your body looks. Some men do not like to be served by a pregnant waitress, so it’s normal to be let go,” Grace explained. “They also did not want to pay for my maternity leave.”
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The irony is that what women are punished for, men are praised for. In fact while women can experience a loss in wages after childbirth as they are offered less, men gain by negotiating for more wages. Research group Third Way found that women lose 4% of hourly earnings for each child they have while men earn 6% more.
The motherhood penalty continues to thrive as women remain more likely than men to take time away from work or reduce work hours to juggle caregiving responsibilities. This, in a corporate culture that still glorifies the outdated model which prioritizes long, continuous, traditional work hours which put women at a disadvantage.
“It is illegal to discriminate job candidates due to pregnancy or motherhood,” Joy Kaguri, a HR manager, stresses. While she admits that getting proof of such discrimination might be difficult, an aggrieved party could lodge a complaint with the Ministry of Labour which has departments to deal with such issues.
David Mugun, author and founder of Business Persons Mentor, does not agree with this discriminative culture.
“Behind every pregnancy is a man, so how then do we penalize the woman?” he poses.
He however explains that such discrimination is bound to happen if a company lacks clear employment guidelines or dealing with poor financing.
“Economic growth has been slowing down since 2014 and quite a number of companies have had to cut down on their employee numbers. It is unfortunate that women are usually the first victims due to elements such as paid maternity leave and working hours. They look for employees who can work longer hours and deliver on time,” David says.
Despite the sad state of affairs, he indicates that all is not lost. That businesses can still get their money’s worth while supporting women.
“Companies should encourage flexi-hours which allows women to work and deliver from home while giving them peace of mind about child care. Covid-19 has taught us that this is possible as long as productivity is met. I cannot stress the importance of having women in the workplace. They bring divergent views and ideas that add to the growth of organisations. Men cannot exist without women and vice versa.”
This was echoed by Queenter Mbori, president of Standard Group Women’s Network.
“It is necessary for an organisation to have a clear policy that states what is expected from the employee and employer when a woman is pregnant, during maternity leave and afterwards,” she points out.
The policy also protects the female employee from supervisors who might victimize the woman or might not understand how to work with her during this period.
“Pregnancy is not a permanent situation but it’s a very necessary one. So it is important to support women during this phase in order to reap the skills they bring to the table,” Queenter says.
Organisations are also encouraged to create conducive environments for their pregnant and working mothers. In addition to maternity policy, they should create nursing rooms where mothers can privately and hygienically express milk for their babies. Those that are able should consider having daycare services where mothers can leave their babies in the care of qualified attendants.
“It is so common for a househelp to tell you she is leaving on the morning you are to report to the office. With no choice, I am forced to call the office asking for a day or more in order to take care of the children,” Sarah says, indicating that if the workplace had a daycare, it would mean she would be productive without worrying about the child.
This predicament is further compounded by social mindset that caregiving responsibilities lie squarely on women, whether they are working or not. Responsibilities such as clinic days, hospital visits, school events, sports events, home roles are generally left to women to juggle alongside their career.
Organisations can also enable men to take part in caregiving in order to ease the burden on women.
“HR policies should also consider giving men time to take on these responsibilities. It took years to pass the paternity leave policy which give men an opportunity to participate in raising their children. The same should be considered for clinic days and hospital appointments. When men are given this allowance to be in their kids lives, it also eases the burden on women. It also considers fathers who are single parents,” Joy notes.
What women can do
Queenter encourages women to ask the hard questions when it comes to job interviews on maternity policies.
“Do not be afraid to ask these questions as it guides you on the type of support you would get when you get pregnant. If you are not comfortable asking the panel, talk to HR separately to understand the company policy.”
Women already working in the organisation should familiarize themselves with the policy so they are well versed with what is expected of them and their employer.
Those who feel they have been discriminated to the point of being fired or loss of an opportunity can seek legal redress from organisations such as Ministry of labour, Maendeleo ya Wanawake or FIDA-Kenya.
Until then, we have a long way in the journey to attain a penalty free environment.