Wednesday, 30 July 2014 09:26

What hurricanes and working parents have in common

Opinion piece by Commissioner Kate Jenkins as published in the Australian Financial Review, 30 July 2014.

Did you know that female hurricanes are three times more deadly on average than male hurricanes? You would have expected the opposite, wouldn’t you? That’s the problem. The names of hurricanes alternate between masculine and feminine names. A recent study in the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences analysed hurricanes excluding Katrina and Audrey. The study found that the gender of a storm’s name affects people’s perceptions of risk and the actions they would take in response. Gender stereotyping assumes hurricane Arthur will be more ferocious than hurricane Dolly. This influences decision-making in preparation for a storm, people being more likely to secure their homes and evacuate for Arthur than Dolly.

The Australian Human Rights Commission Report, “Supporting Working Parents”, launched last Friday, contends that harmful stereotypes and attitudes to pregnant workers and workers with family responsibilities mean that our economy and our community is also suffering unnecessary harm. The commission identified that one in two mothers have experienced discrimination related to pregnancy and return to work. I am certain most working mums will not be surprised.

As I travel around the state of Victoria, I am struck by the number of women who recount their experience of pregnancy discrimination. Just last week a woman told me she had overheard a conversation between four men from one of Australia’s most respected companies. The men said they would never hire a young women because she would just get pregnant and leave. This is unlawful. As “Supporting Working Parents” shows, this attitude is deeply entrenched in workplaces right across the country.

Many well-intentioned managers also contribute to discrimination because of assumptions that affect their approach to pregnant workers. I have frequently heard of women being told that they did not need to decide what they wanted to do about work before they leave for maternity leave, being assured they could just decide about their return to work when the time was right. This would not be the approach for a person seeking a leave of absence. This is not a good way to run a business, nor is it a way to maintain a successful career.

The assumption is that the new mum will fall so deeply in love with being a mother they won’t want to return to work at all, or soon, and certainly not full time. That matches the stereotyping of women with family that most of us learnt in our youth. And in making those assumptions managers prepare for them to come true. They often delay asking for details of the person’s plans for return. They divide the person’s tasks up rather than replacing the role. Or they replace it with someone who they expect will continue. They make little effort to reallocate work or clients back to the employee when she returns. They find part-time work of a lower status rather than considering job share for the previous role. And they don’t even realise that all of this conduct was driven by an assumption that the woman will want to lower her career trajectory once she becomes a mother. For a woman the assumption is that it’s either career or family; it can’t be both. “Supporting Working Parents” makes some clear, practical recommendations. I strongly agree with the recommendation for agencies like mine to work with other bodies to develop a single, consistent guide to help workers and organisations understand their rights and obligations. This can remove some of the confusion. It recommends addressing gaps in legal protections and monitoring, evaluation and research on discrimination trends. It recommends education for managers and employees on harmful stereotypes, so maybe in future we won’t assume female hurricanes are weak, and that pregnant workers don’t want to work after childbirth.

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