Monday, 18 January 2010

on hiring a 30something woman

I owe my old boss a lot. But I've never exactly felt he deserved a medal for his bravery in offering me a job.
Which is why I'm so annoyed at myself. I was interviewed today on radio about giving up work, something I've done before. But I've never been asked this particular question.
Surely, said my interviewer, my boss had had to think twice before appointing a woman to a senior job like my old one?
I was so surprised that instead of saying what I thought (er, why? Obviously you need to know if someone could do the job, but why should you be specifically more worried about that if they're - gasp!imagine it! - a woman?) I spluttered something about hoping that wasn't the case. I wimped out.
Thinking about it on the way home though, I wondered. This may well be unfair, because he never said a word about it, but I do wonder if my gender crossed my boss's mind. If for no other reason than because I suspect a lot of men appointing a 33-year-old woman to a critical job worry whether they'll get pregnant and leave. It shouldn't enter their thinking, but I bet it often does.
And of course, I did get pregnant two years later: and eventually leave, nearly five years later. Nevermind that if I was childless, I'd quite possibly have left for a new job elsewhere. (There is a brilliant study I can't currently find showing men leave jobs more frequently than women, because they defect for promotions - so actually if you want a committed employee, maybe hire a woman).
So perhaps the interviewer was right to ask. If so, depressing how little has changed. I was talking a few days ago to a friend of a friend, a GP who trained in, I guess, the early 70s. She was asked directly at her medical school interview if she meant to have children and what she would do about it, a question that's illegal now under sex discrimination law. She knew the only acceptable answer was that she'd be a fulltime doctor no matter what, so it's what she said.
Interviewers don't usually ask that question openly now: but I suspect a fair few still ask it silently in their heads. Changing that will take more than legislation.


  1. I keep hearing people talk about the alleged problem of hiring women of a child bearing age, but I think it all comes out in the wash. Yes, I had a kid while employed, but my employer gave me a generous flexi-time arrangement - as a result I still work for him, instead of having hopped onto a grander job, which is what I would have done had the childbearing not worked out. It was a win-win situation; there is no need to make this into a zero sum game. When it comes time for us to part ways, I doubt either of us will feel ill-used.

    By the way, I believe it is not technically illegal to ask something discriminatory at an interview - but it is illegal to take the answer into consideration when deciding who to hire. So anybody with an ounce of legal sense will avoid asking the question in the first place.

  2. The only solution is levelling it out for women by pointing the finger away from them, and onto men. If paternity leave was mandatory, the issue would not arise. I wouldn't blame any boss for chosing a male over a female (all other things being equal)...but if paternity leave had to happen, the risk is equalled. The focus has to be on men, not women.

  3. It is a real issue for small businesses (and larger ones). My wife's former employer took on a tranche of 20-something women a few years ago. About four years ago, over an 18 month period, just about all of them disappeared for six months, causing serious problems for those left behind - in some cases, entire teams were on maternity leave. What it tells us is that companies need to ensure diversity - a mixture of men and women, a mixture of ages - to protect against this problem (and other problems, such as everyone reaching retirement age around the same time). To achieve that sort of mix needs a change of mindset - an acceptance that older workers have plenty to offer, an acceptance that just because a woman becomes a parent does not mean she will desert the company, an acceptance that flexibility is often rewarded by loyalty (although that is a two-way street) - and it needs to be matched by the employee understanding that the company has needs too.

  4. Hi Gaby

    love your blog! you probably don't remember me - I was one of a multitude of Lib Dem press officers who used to drop releases on your desk & then went on to WATO & PM at radio 4. We left London after 8 years of mad deadlines. I'm now designing and handmaking baby clothes in Liberty prints from our home in the Peak District ( Don't miss London one bit & love life up here. Think there are huge dilemmas for 30 something women with or without kids. We're the last of all our friends not to have children - by choice & we are surrounded by children and have lovely god-children. See so many of my friends struggling with the work-family balance. So many dilemmas. Will carry on following your blog... best wishes, Lissa

  5. My husband has a very small company. He comments that the problem with maternity for leave is having to keep the job open for someone who may not even choose to return. In a very small company there isn't any cover or much opportunity to share out the work. It takes months to train someone up to be able to be productive.

    Whilst I will fight for the right of a woman to choose what she will do, I do have to concede that it is very difficult for him indeed, which may, unjustly, colour his decisions about who to employ. I don't agree, but I do sympathise.

  6. I think that actually women who have had children will be more committed and likely to stay if you treat them ok so it all comes out in the wash

  7. In the last four years I've had four months off sick (admittedly utterly unrelated to being female) and two years' maternity leave (with seven months working in-between) . I'm still with the company but now only working 2 days a week and plan to cut that down to freelancing in the not too distant future. It is the only company I've ever worked for (unless you count holiday/Saturday jobs), they paid for my post-graduate training, gave me a vast amount of internal training and were grooming me for a senior role that I now won't take up.

    I think of myself as a feminist, I'm liberal thinking and voting, but I'm not sure I'd employ me.

    I don't think there's a simple answer and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities that the legislation has given me and millions of other women, but as Brit in Bosnia says, we do also have to appreciate that the fact that life is made easier for us, does, necessarily, make it harder for others, and maybe those others should have a right to express that.

  8. I'm a man and I gave up my career to look after the children when they were small so my wife could pursue her career. We are doing fine - she is doing well in her career and earns far more than I do. I eventually went back to work in a completely different field and have a satisfactory job, but it's not like my CV is going to add up to much by the time I'm through.

    To me all this stuff gets worked out in the relationship between two people and every circumstance is unique, but it is a shame when the dice get rolled an 99 times out of a hundred the woman gives up her career. As much as anything else it does take a lot of self-confidence to effectively put your partner out of work.

  9. Good blog. The person who mentioned paternity leave is right, if they are trying to say what I think they are. It should not be taken for granted that the mother will be the one that takes leave. Legislation should be changed to allow for either the mother or father to take leave or it should be allowed to be shared.

    I don't think anyone who gives their employer several years of commitment, should feel guilty about making full use their statutory rights because as Gaby points out, many childless women or men move on quickly when they get the urge for a pay rise or promotion.

    Some employers do a lot - I hope the current recession encourages more to think about allowing job-sharing and more part time working. I read Gaby's article about why she left her job and wondered whether the Observer do anything like this. I do feel for the employer though when they pay for training and someone leaves, but that would equally apply to men or childless women.

    Also, maternity leave is great in some respects because it allows employers to take on people on short-term cover - could give someone a break in their chosen industry / experience of something more senior.

    I don't have children but find this an interesting area.

  10. i think it's really depressing and very true that (invariably male) bosses look that way at you (me). my paranoia is not being helped by being surrounded by lots of women in their 20s stamping all over my patch - or what used to be my patch before i went on maternity leave. the worst thing is that i don't feel able to complain because if i really cared then i'd work five days a week, not three. wouldn't i? after all, you did....

  11. LOVE THE BLOG!!!

    My job started as a 6 month maternity cover contract (that was nearly 4 years ago and I am now permanent). When I said during the second interview "I know this is a 6 month contract which starts in June, but I need September off as I am getting married and going on a 1 month honeymoon," I kind of thought it would be a show stopped. But no.

    I always try to hold faith that people recruit the best skilled and experience person for the job. Hey if you get the job and you are of a child-bearing situation ... then you are definately good at what you do!

    I totally agree with the comments above about the answers being in levelling male paternity rights ... only by shifting male paternity rights will we begin to shift/equalise their opinions.

  12. Love the blog. I just came back to the UK for a job interview for a radiology consultant post. I'm 35 and yet to have a child. I was worried that my age and sex would work against me (even though it officially can't), particularly as the panel was 7 men. Interestingly all the 4 short listed candidates were female and I did breathe a sigh of relief as that leveled the playing field. And yes, there is a high chance (hopefully) that I will go on maternity leave at some point, but I bring skills and value which a man can't in many ways and this is the 21st century! I completely agree that paternity rights should change as it also shouldn't be assumed that I want to have 6-9-12 months off work, particularly if I were to be the main breadwinner.