On Women, Work and Maternity

An acquaintance of mine got fired when her employer learned she was pregnant. The fact that is contrary to the law of the country she resides in was circumvented by some clever talk about budget and funds. This woman was fired in an organisation you wouldn’t suspect to practice such policies. Not in a million years.

A friend of mine was scolded for getting pregnant at a time that was deemed unfit by her employer.

Another one went into a tortuous path to get her maternity leave time straight.

Yet another one has in her insurance policy contract a clause stating she is not allowed to get pregnant on a certain period of time.

The world is asking itself with a frown if the CEO of Yahoo will be able to carry on doing her job properly while being pregnant and soon becoming a mother.

It’s funny how employers and the likes are inviting themselves into people’s bedrooms and women’s uterus, while no one really asked them, even though many international and regional texts, conventions and treaties call on to the respect of people’s private life, on the end of discrimination towards women on the basis that they might get pregnant and on the enactment of laws and policies enabling women to remain active, regardless of their motherhood status.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, 1979) urges at its article 11:

2. In order to prevent discrimination against women on the grounds of marriage or maternity and to ensure their effective right to work, States Parties shall take appropriate measures:

(a) To prohibit, subject to the imposition of sanctions, dismissal on the grounds of pregnancy or of maternity leave and discrimination in dismissals on the basis of marital status;

(b) To introduce maternity leave with pay or with comparable social benefits without loss of former employment, seniority or social allowances;

To encourage the provision of the necessary supporting social services to enable parents to combine family obligations with work responsibilities and participation in public life, in particular through promoting the establishment and development of a network of child-care facilities;

(d) To provide special protection to women during pregnancy in types of work proved to be harmful to them.”

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995 states as an action to be taken by governments, under its objective to “Promote women’s economic rights and independence, including access to employment and appropriate working conditions and control over economic resources”, that States should “Eliminate discriminatory practices by employers and take appropriate measures in consideration of women’s reproductive role and functions, such as the denial of employment and dismissal due to pregnancy or breast-feeding, or requiring proof of contraceptive use, and take effective measures to ensure that pregnant women, women on maternity leave or women re-entering the labour market after childbearing are not discriminated against”.

The Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD, 1994) states under its Chapter V as an action that

Countries are strongly urged to enact laws and to implement programmes and policies which will enable employees of both sexes to organize their family and work responsibilities through flexible work-hours, parental leave, day-care facilities, maternity leave, policies that enable working mothers to breast-feed their children, health insurance and other such measures. Similar rights should be ensured to those working in the informal sector” and that

Governments, in cooperation with employers, should provide and promote means to facilitate compatibility between labour force participation and parental responsibilities, especially for single-parent households with young children. Such means could include health insurance and social security, day- care centres and facilities for breast-feeding mothers within the work premises, kindergartens, part-time jobs, paid parental leave, paid maternity leave, flexible work schedules, and reproductive and child health services.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966, states at its article 10 par.2:

The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize that:

  1. Special protection should be accorded to mothers during a reasonable period before and after childbirth. During such period working mothers should be accorded paid leave or leave with adequate social security benefits.

And if that’s not enough, the principle of non-discrimination is a principle underlying the whole body of International Human Rights Law, and is universally binding, no matter what treaty a given State has ratified or not, rendering discrimination against women of all shapes and forms unlawful.

The aforementioned examples of women being harmed because of their personal choices got me thinking about how maternity in the workplace is one of the biggest taboos, even between women themselves. Not wanting to seem litigious and anxious about keeping their job or finding a new one, women tend to remain silent on the issue, making it difficult to have an appropriate picture of the actual scope of the problem.

So, how come we are still discussing these issues in the 21st Century? Why are women still pressured into either staying at home if they want to have children or not having them if they still want to fulfill their productive role? It seems like women can’t win: if they want to keep on working after childbirth, they’re mocked by people telling them they want to “have it all”, if they decide to stay at home, they’re dubbed idiotic housewives, if they carry on working and decide not to have children, they’re “selfish” and their life has no meaning.

One of the culprit is capitalism: by emphasizing profit, performance and productivity at all costs, the neo-liberal paradigm creates a situation where women perceived as most likely to have children soon are seen as burdens and extra-costs to the company/organisation, rendering them less attractive for employment. Besides, the competition this system creates between workers , coupled by current economic hardships and high unemployment rates, create even more precarious conditions for workers and hinder the building of strong social/syndicated movements, thus scaring women into remaining silent and pushing them to organise their reproductive choices around the constraints of their jobs.

Besides, policies and laws stemming from patriarchal beliefs and attitudes do not support working mothers and push for women to stay at home: this is why you only have 4 months of paid maternity leave in Switzerland, and only 7 to 10 weeks in Lebanon, while paid maternity leave is not an employer’s obligation in the US. This is also why this lack of political will translates into crazy high rates of childcare, lack of appropriate public structures to enable women (and men) to carry out their productive, reproductive and community roles.

Gender stereotypes also play a role: because child rearing is seen as “women’s work”, most of it falls on women’s shoulders. This is why when a child is sick, most of the times it is women who take the day off to look after him or her, reinforcing the prejudice that the quality of women’s work is lowered by having children.

In order to turn the tide, not only do we need a shift in economic paradigm, but also in mentalities, leading to better laws and regulations, but we also need to reverse the sexist idea that children are mostly women’s responsibility: equitable sharing of household and child-care duties would considerably alleviate the burden placed on women, regardless of whether they’d like to keep on working or not.

With this regards, Elizabeth Wurtzel published a particularly shocking article in the Atlantic where she argues that stay at home mothers are good for nothing free riders, basically only busy with yoga, who give a bad name to other women and are singlehandedly destroying feminism. She also argues the only equality there is is the economic reality and that earning one’s keep is the only indicator of adulthood: domestic work and child rearing are not work in her eyes.

Ok, so first and foremost, I think before perorating on what is feminism and on who is destroying it, this woman should re-read her classics and do a bit more of research. Feminism is a revolutionary movement aimed at shifting power dynamics: all of them, economic dynamics as well as gender dynamics, so the oppressed ceased to be, well, oppressed. What Wurtzel is doing is merely applying hard core capitalist views to her so called analysis, reproducing patriarchal beliefs and attitudes: women who choose to stay at home are useless to society, because basically they do not produce anything and do not earn a salary. That’s the narrowest view of the economy and who contributes to it if there ever was one. Who needs male chauvinist pigs when we have women doing the job so brilliantly? She reminds me of condescending men in the 50’s patting their wives on the shoulders, telling them they’re lucky to be married to them so they can stay at home and do nothing. Second of all, I think Wurtzel should read Marylin Warig (a feminist if there ever was one) work on feminist economics (If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics): news update Elizabeth, household work IS work. If women did not do these tasks, they’d have to be outsourced to professionals, considerably increasing household budgets.

It is not because women’s contribution to the economy has not been taken into account by (mainstream, reflecting patriarchy) indicators and statistics so far that it doesn’t exist. It does, and many governments and international institutions (Morocco, Liberia, UNDP, etc…) are starting to pick up on it. Go on Elizabeth, the UNDP website is not out of your reach. Do a little research.

Finally, her article reflects are narrow her views are: she only describes a minimal fraction of stay at home mothers, the North American privileged white, while women who decide to stay at home might do it out of a myriad of reasons (mainly because child care and professional help are so costly that salaries simply can’t cover them), actually enabling the household to save a few pounds/dollars/insert appropriate currency.

In order to enable women to fulfill their roles, we need to fight the right enemies (capitalism, patriarchal beliefs, weak laws and policies), and it seems that internalized sexism is not the least of them.


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