If you were recruiting someone for your company, who would you prefer; someone with children, or without? Or would you not mind? Instead, would you be focused on their skills and experience? Or maybe you’d be worrying that a parent would need more flexibility for the school-run. Or perhaps that a non-parent may turn up late due to too many late nights out, free of responsibility. Whilst it is unlawful to discriminate against someone for having children, I do wonder if there is an unconscious bias amongst us which makes us think that people with without children are more able to get the job done.
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias has been defined by Acas as, “when people favour others who look like them and/or share their values”. Although it is natural in us to experience this, if acted on it can lead to a lack of diversity. For example, if I unconsciously felt that only parents who carried their babies in a sling were worthy of my friendship (this is not the case, by the way) then I would be discriminating against all those buggy pushers. I would be missing out on some strong-armed friends. This kind of thinking can happen in the workplace. By subconsciously thinking that parents are incapable of hard work (but parenting is the hardest job!), companies would only be hiring non-parents leading to a lack of diversity and narrowing their organisation’s skillset. As I said, unconscious bias is a natural occurrence, but we should make a conscious effort to not act on it.
A role with a purpose
In fact, I work a lot harder since becoming a parent than I did in my childless days. Back then, I didn’t have a purpose, other than to earn money so that I could spend it on nights out and throwaway fashion. Now I work so that I can provide for my family and be a role-model for my children. What has changed for me is that I require a working pattern that allows me to take my children to and from nursery, not being lucky enough to live near family who can help out. My job search is no longer about looking for full-time roles, but instead for part-time or flexible roles. These roles are becoming more available, with employers realising that by not offering this, they are shutting out a large proportion of hard-working, head-screwed-on types. However, Anna Whitehouse of Mother Pukka has commented on the scarcity of such roles: “Some 30% of the UK’s working population wants flexible working but doesn’t have it”. This is a huge percentage, and companies are doing themselves a disservice by not providing more flexible roles.
The competent worker: non-parent, unmarried, male.
I do wonder though if these unconscious biases are a lot more conscious than people would care to admit. I have been told of occasions when someone has been outright discriminated against for being a parent. An acquaintance overheard her manager discussing how the company was not to hire “marrieds” as they would “have children and become incompetent”. Therefore she avoided telling him about her wedding. Wow. Would that then mean that if anyone get married, they also get fired? The same acquaintance also revealed that her male friends in the same stage of life had never experienced such issues. This prejudice has been confirmed by The Independent, who revealed that a poll by The Young Womens Trust showed that 22 per cent of bosses polled disagreed that “whether a woman is pregnant or has young children has no impact on organisational decisions regarding career progression or promotion”. That is a high percentage, and I also wonder how truthful these bosses were in their responses.
It is an incredible shame that women feel the need to hide their marital status or the fact that they have a family when applying for new roles. Whilst it is illegal for employers to discriminate on such grounds, I question how much unconscious bias takes place during the recruitment process. On the other hand, I also wonder whether women who have taken such actions to hide their marital or family status would have been offered employment regardless.
Recently, due to the experiences of friends who have become parents, I deleted all of my social media profiles so that any potential employers would not see that I have children. I also removed my wedding ring before taking part in a job interview as the company was ‘full of cool, young and single people’. Furthermore, the organisation did not understand the concept of flexible working and did not know what a Maternity Package was. I am not condemning them for this at all; it is simply something to which I should have paid more attention. It was one of those ‘work hard, play hard’ organisations where a parent with other responsibilities may not be able to pull off the extra hours of work and then go out for work drinks every evening. Yes, I know that these things were red flags, but the great team with whom I would be working made me continue with my application, as did the free coffee. In hindsight, the fact that I was hiding so much of who I was has taught me that it was a mistake to apply in the first place. I’ve since reinstated my social media profiles with my children in the photos, and have even started designing Mama Bear t-shirts. Just so, you know, people know who I really am.
What remains clear is that the fear of prejudice experienced by women is real and is a fear that highlights the need for changes in the attitudes and beliefs within the modern workplace. These changes may not necessarily take place from the top-down, which means that it’s up to everyone, no matter their seniority level, to take action. Talk to your colleagues, your boss, even your neighbours. And don’t put it off. If not now, when?