You Can’t Handle The Truth

14 02 2008

Apologies for borrowing liberally from A Few Good Men (which also happens to be one of my favourite films) but it’s immediately what came to mind when I saw the criticism Sir Alan Sugar received for stating the obvious. The fact is he’s correct, Human Resources managers have been “playing along” for years, secretly waiting to bin a woman’s CV. People have just been afraid to admit it.

For Unison to say that employers who do this are missing out on a huge pool of talent is missing the point. If I wanted to be as hypersensitive as some of those complaining about Sir Alan’s remarks I could point out how this seems to imply that the men they employ instead lack the talent. What is actually being said here is not that a hugely talented woman will be rejected for a vastly inferior male candidate, but rather that where two candidates are of roughly similar abilities, the male has an advantage because of the current workplace laws regarding maternity leave.

Not only that but it misses another point; that pool of talent is pretty useless if it’s not at the disposal of the employer because the mother is busy with childcare responsibilities. The criticism that it implies that childcare is a woman’s responsibility also misses the point being made. Take a look at maternity leave. Compare it with paternity leave. Notice how maternity leave is so much longer than paternity leave? The implication that childcare is a woman’s responsibility, or at least primarily hers, is implicit in those laws.

That is not to say that it is a woman’s responsibility, or even primarily hers, but that the current laws are actually enshrining that principle. Nothing Sir Alan has said is all that revolutionary, I’ve long said the same, these laws are slowly making women less and less employable, rather than the opposite, which is what they were designed to do. I certainly am not arguing women should not have maternity leave, I believe women have fought long and hard for these rights. Neither, actually, was Sir Alan.

He asked that employers be allowed to ask how women intend to balance their responsibilities. Equally I believe employers should be allowed to ask men this, but the simple fact is employers won’t do this as much. Not because they like discriminating but because the laws, as they currently are, provide men less scope for time off for family matters. Women not only have longer maternity leave than men have paternity leave, but also have greater rights when it comes to things like flexible hours.

Any discrimination here is not by employers against women but the laws themselves discriminating against men. Yes, I said it. I’m sick of hearing feminists demand yet more rights whilst failing to acknowledge that women, whilst admittedly still not equal with men in today’s society, have some rights men do not. There is a massive gulf in pay between men and women, and equally there are less women at the higher levels of major companies. I agree, this has to be addressed. Yet none of that should be used to mask the fact that there is also workplace discrimination against men.

What’s worse is that this discrimination is not by people, but by the laws themselves, which enshrine the old-fashioned idea that it’s a man’s responsibility to earn money and a woman’s to raise the children. Paternity leave vs maternity leave, widows rights vs widowers rights, child custody, divorce settlements, the law is riddled with examples of this disparity. If attitudes are to change, the laws must lead by example.

Thankfully I think many women do agree with a lot of what is being said. Many agree that since an employer’s duty is not a social one, but rather an economic one, they should be allowed to ask questions that go to a person’s ability to do the job. Those that have come out against it actually appear more sexist with statements like

Women have different skill sets from men, not least the ability to multi-task – a skill which defeats most men.

If we weren’t such good multi-taskers, the human race would not have survived.

Admittedly it’s true to say that without women, the human race would not have survived, that’s simply a matter of biology, but one could say the same about men. The multi-tasking point is a common myth. The very idea that human beings can multi-task is a fiction we’ve created. True multi-tasking would be doing multiple tasks at the same time to the same standard as you would if you did them as stand-alone tasks.

When people say things like “Women are better at multi-tasking” what they mean is that women are better at doing two tasks at the same time to a lesser standard than if they did them separately. Not that the same isn’t true of men multi-tasking, it is. Human beings, work best when we concentrate on one thing at a time. All modern productivity systems stress this. In knowledge work quality of work is more important than quantity.

Hilariously Dr Stoppard’s criticism of Sir Alan Sugar is contradictory. On the one hand she says “What is especially wrong with Sir Alan’s patronising comments is that he implies that rearing children is purely women’s work.” and on the other she says “She has to be super-competent to run a home, a family and a job.” Doesn’t the latter statement imply that rearing children or running the home are “women’s work”? Why can’t a man be “super competent to run a home, a family and a job”?

Whilst I disagree with generalising on gender lines, it’s a sexist thing and it’s ironic for it to be used to criticise someone for sexism, I will agree that there are some things that women are good at that men are not, and vice-versa. Yes, women, believe it or not, we’re better at things like rotating shapes in our head. We actually read maps better, we’re just too arrogant to bother. Women are often better at time management across multiple tasks, which is what is often mistakenly called “multi-tasking”.

My solution to the problem would be to give men equal paternity leave rights. If a man was free to take off the same amount of time for their family as a woman, or demand the same sort of flexibility with their hours, there would be no advantage to an employer employing a man over a woman. Couple this with an ability for employers to ask both men and women how they plan to juggle family and work and you’re getting somewhere. Admittedly this would still leave an issue where those who don’t want to have a family would have an advantage but at least it wouldn’t be gender-based.

Why shouldn’t those willing to sacrifice having a family for their career have an advantage anyway? Certainly I think that if this move were made a lot more men would be pushing female equality issues (like pay or promotion). The goal should be true workplace equality, not a situation where women have all the rights and men have none.

But why demonstrate common sense when you can just shoot the messenger?


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5 responses

14 02 2008
Stella

Here’s a bit of common sense for you: I have breasts. Not overly large ones, but nonetheless they proved quite useful for breastfeeding, during the nine months I stayed at home with my daughter. They were useful night and day, about every 2 to 4 hours. I would have loved to go back to work, but there was nowhere at my place of work for me to use a breast pump to keep producing milk every couple of hours, and we all know that we MUST ABSOLUTELY breastfeed our children or else they will grow up imbeciles and unproductive members of society, or so says the current medical literature. I would have loved my husband to get up to the baby in the night, but the reality was that a) he couldn’t give her what she wanted; and b) I was lying there in the dark in a puddle of cold milk, with my breasts feeling like they might explode, needing to feed her so that we could both go back to sleep.

Furthermore, there was the seemingly overlooked fact that I pushed an entire human being out of my body in a bloodbath that gives me nightmares to this day. It was five weeks before I was able to drive a car again, four months before I could sit down properly, about twelve months before my inner organs settled into approximately their usual places and I could walk at normal speed. Childbirth is dismissed as something that takes a couple of hours of puffing. The reality is that even if you don’t actually die, you might wish that you had. Yeah, I would love to have asked somebody else to bear those months of pain for me, in exchange for taking parental leave. Would you mind going to the loo for me as well, while you’re up? Because that still hurts.

Nonetheless, despite this inequality of nature that has landed me with the physical responsibilities, in Australia, either parent is allowed to take 12 months’ parental leave, but not both parents at the same time.

It’s unfortunate that as a society, we have become so focused on profitability and the bottom line that it is eclipsing both our common sense and our fairness. At least in Australia, employers seem to have adopted a policy of hiring the smallest possible number of full time employees and working them rapidly to death, rather than a greater number of part time employees who could make some attempt at work life balance.

A benevolent culture would look after all its members, not just those who produce an income.

14 02 2008
Mr President

But that’s just it. Workplaces don’t exist to be benevolent, they exist to make a profit. The bottom line ought to be a business’ first and foremost concern. A job is not a social service, businesses exist to make a profit, if profitability isn’t their focus, what is?

Whilst I agree with you, there are physical reasons that explain the disparity in parental leave, so long as those exist employers will continue to discriminate. If you highlight differences between the genders then employers are entitled to treat the two genders differently. My point about equality between the genders has always been that we aren’t equal. We’re different, in many ways.

Believe it or not I’m not trivialising childbirth, I accept it as a huge hurdle women have to suffer through that men do not. That, in itself, is proof that we are not equal. You yourself referred to it as an “inequality of nature”. I couldn’t agree more. My reason for asking for equal parental leave has nothing to do with trivialising why women need it.

Heck I don’t think 12 months is enough, personally. I’d favour at least 18. As you rightly point out it can take at least 12 months to just recover fully from childbirth. However, unless men have the same rights, employers will use it as an excuse to discriminate.

The situation you describe as being present in Australia seems perfect. The mother has 12 months, after which the father can take his twelve months. Is this fair? Probably not, the mother has to endure childbirth, the father does not. Does it reduce the incentive for an employer to discriminate? Yes, they’ll lose the 12 months whatever they do.

The truth of the matter is women are actually disadvantaged by the current state of the laws regarding maternity leave. That’s all that was being said here and whatever any of us may believe about how things should be, that is how they are. I can’t disagree with anything you’ve said but I can’t help but feel it’s all irrelevant to the discussion.

Not only that but the disparity in terms of childbirth doesn’t explain why, until recently, widows received their dead husband’s pension, but a widower never received his dead wife’s pension. This surely suggests that the law enshrines the idea that men are the breadwinners and women are not. This is wrong, women are just as capable of being the breadwinner and in many families, they are. Equally, the idea of child custody always favouring the mother. At a young age this makes sense but why does a teenage boy need their mother more than their father?

Do I agree that society ought to “look after” women who have children? Of course. Do I think that employers should have the right to ask how an employee, of either gender, plans to achieve a work-life balance? Yes, because their goal is not to look after people, but to make money.

16 02 2008
Stella

I think there is room for another way. Is it ethical for employers to have a goal of simply making money, at the expense of all else? Does this paradigm even help them to achieve that goal, or is it costing them money?

Studies consistently show that employers that look after their people achieve better profits than their counterparts. Corporate social responsibility shouldn’t be the domain of a few; it should be something which all companies are required to adopt. Aside from the issue of women’s rights, there are things like environmental degradation and the snowballing consumerist nature of our society which need to be addressed. Even if you don’t believe in climate change, nobody wants to see McDonald’s wrappers scattered from here to kingdom come, nor breathe the foul air of a pulp mill town.

In Finland, childcare is the responsibility of the local government, and each council is required by law to have a childcare place available for that child from birth, whether or not the parents choose to avail themselves of this. I believe a similar system exists in Sweden. There, paid maternity leave is provided by the State, at a level commensurate with the parent’s average salary prior to taking leave. This encourages people to build their careers before having children, and lessens the impact on industry who do not have to find the money to pay for maternity leave.

As it happens, it is generally cheaper to keep a mother on the books at a company and get her to return, rather than get someone new. I’m sure the point that you are making is that a company can avoid this altogether if they hire a man, who in your country is not entitled to parental leave at all, but the fact is that in western countries worldwide, there is a shortage of skilled labour. We have a problem. A big problem. By the end of next year in Tasmania, the number of people leaving the workforce will be greater than the number of people entering it. The rest of Australia will follow this trend soon after, along with the UK, USA, Japan, New Zealand.

There needs to be a cultural change about the way we view work, and who we see as a valuable employee. We need to increase workforce participation, and one way to do that is to have flexible working arrangements and get women (back) into the workforce.

Most employers don’t have the luxury of discrimination at this point, particularly not the ones who have the reputation for doing so.

16 02 2008
Mr President

I agree with practically everything you’ve said there. Allow me to just make a couple of additional points:

There is parental leave in the UK for men but it’s only just been introduced and is much shorter than for women. At present I don’t believe many men avail themselves of the right anyway as it’s pretty new. Perhaps as more men do so employers will discriminate less.

Secondly, I’ve long been an admirer of the Scandinavian models for childcare and creating a suitable work-life balance. Note, nothing I’ve said contradicts that, and the same with Sir Alan’s remarks. I think, though, unless the state is the body responsible for paying for maternity leave (as exists in Scandinavian countries but not in the UK) employers should have a right to ask how someone plans to balance work and life. It’s really no different, in my view, to asking how an employee plans to travel into work every day.

That really is the crux of the argument here. Even if the system as it exists in the UK (or Australia, for that matter, since you’ve described the system there too) stays as it is, and I certainly would not oppose this, is it really discriminatory for an employer to ask a woman how she plans to balance her work and her family commitments?

True, many employers don’t ask this of the men they employ, and there is a reason for that; men have less rights in this regard. Even if leave were left as it were (and I can agree that this should be the way it is since women have to give birth, men do not) I think we can both agree that both parents ought to have opportunity for flexible working hours.

Not necessarily at an early age, where breastfeeding is again, as you point out, a unique female experience that requires a mother to be with the child whenever the child needs feeding, but once that child is a toddler I see no reason why it’s automatically assumed that looking after the child is a job solely for the mother. In many situations it’s the father who has to stay at home with the children.

Certainly I have to agree there needs to be a cultural shift in how we view work, and equally how we view parenting. Traditional male-female roles, the male being the breadwinner and the female being responsible for childcare, have to be reviewed in light of how modern couples handle the reality of balancing childcare and work.

I’ve long advocated flexible working arrangements. Even without childcare responsibilities, we all have other things in our lives that exist outside of work. We have parents, who, as they get older, become our responsibility. Equally we have families, not only children, but also siblings and other relatives. Even disregarding all of this, we have people who have different energy cycles.

A comprehensive review of working practices is necessary. Not just parental leave, or working out ways to prevent a very real problem (women are being discriminated against in the workplace) but also just a way to ensure that our workforce continues to remain productive and we get the best out of our knowledge workers.

The shift from manufacturing-based industries to services and knowledge work requires a rethink of our traditional working environment. Nonetheless, I still maintain, as was the point of the article, that Sir Alan’s remarks were, as unpalatable as they may be, valid. Employers are discriminating against women, in many cases on the basis of parental leave, and this must be stopped.

Or else we might find ourselves with women choosing to work and simply not have a family. If every woman made that choice, then where would the human race be? We must change attitudes towards work.

14 03 2008
Flexible Parenting « Textual Relations

[…] 14 03 2008 Remember the uproar caused by my last post about parental leave? I’m still somewhat proud of that, I must admit, after all, my goal has always been to be […]

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