The Monstrous Regiment of (Childbearing Age) Women

A few weeks ago, the NZLEAD Twitter chat was about the role and position of women in the workforce. Some of the debate I found quite odd, since it seemed to be focussing on issues that I personally thought were almost dead and buried in the UK – whether men had a problem with women in the workforce, or if women were “debarred” from working in certain occupations. Sadly, it seems I’ve been viewing the world of work through somewhat rose tinted glasses.

Earlier this week, a report was published which attracted a good deal of press attention, suggesting among other things that 40% of UK employers would have reservations about employing a woman of “childbearing age” and that a third of managers would hire a man in their 20s/30s rather than a woman of similar age, due to fears about maternity leave.

Originally, I was going to write a blog about the dubious use of statistics – the research was commissioned by a firm of lawyers who specialise in employment and discrimination claims and who are no doubt suffering a loss of business currently – and it’s interesting that the data itself is not easily available (the source of all the media stories seems to be this press release, which doesn’t provide any evidence to substantiate the claims). And even accepting the data at face value, it’s quite easy to turn the headline into “60% of employers always aim for the best talent, while an overwhelming majority operate non-discriminatory recruitment practices” should you wish to spin the story a different way.

However, it’s not the data but some of the reaction to the news stories that made me re-think my own views. Commenting on the story, Employment Minister Jo Swinson and TUC Leader Frances O’Grady both described businesses who have this attitude to younger women as “dinosaurs”. As a political soundbite that’s probably ok (if a rather lazy and clichéd image), though personally I’d sooner find out why such a high percentage apparently still hold these views rather than attack them for it (I suspect that much of it is based on a misunderstanding of  employment rules, something I blogged about here).

But the reaction to Swinson’s comments – most notably here – were of such a vile and personal nature that it made me realise that perhaps I have too positive a view. How very dare she express an opinion, especially as a young woman who (shock horror) had a baby and took maternity leave from her ministerial post. Doesn’t she know that British business is collapsing all around her because women are taking maternity time off?

Clearly the debate hasn’t progressed as much as I thought or hoped.