The damning Headline Prevalence Data report released by the Australian Human Rights Commission focuses on the disturbing prevalence of pregnancy-related discrimination occurring in Australia, and exposes us as a society that is far from thriving.
According to some of the headline figures:
50% of women experience pregnancy related discrimination;
72% of those women reported that the discrimination had a negative impact on their mental health;
42% said it had a detrimental impact on their financial health;
41% said it had impeded their career and job opportunities; and
27% of fathers/partners reported experiencing discrimination during parental leave or when they returned to work.
While organisations grapple to strike the right balance between valuing the rights of individuals to make choices around life and work, and driving productive and profitable workforces, we need to embrace this report as an opportunity to have an open and constructive debate about how to eradicate pregnancy related workplace oppression – remembering sex discrimination laws in Australia are 30-years-old – so we continue to evolve as a society.
With almost five years’ experience in delivering coaching programs which successfully support women to manage pregnancy and return to work confidently and flexibly, we have evolved our program so that it now includes a module that coaches our participants to anticipate, and be ready to defend themselves against pregnancy related discrimination, as well as discrimination’s partners in crime: bullying and harassment.
Our experience is the more quickly discriminatory behaviour can be called out, the less likely it is to affect a woman’s confidence, energy and productivity; to the contrary, a speedy resolution empowers the victims.
1. So what can women at risk of discrimination do?
Be aware of the law, and anticipate discrimination, bullying and harassment.
We start with the current legal definitions of bullying, harassment and pregnancy related discrimination, and give women the statistical probability that they will experience pregnancy related discrimination: now a 50% chance.
We also use discrimination alerts in our workbooks as to the predictable stages and encounters during the pregnancy and return-to-work cycle when discrimination usually appears.
2. Pay attention to your intuition
We then expand those definitions because, as Mary Rowe wrote in her paper ‘Barriers to Equality,’ it is the micro-inequities of the small events, commonly referred to as subtle discrimination, that may well be the ‘principal scaffolding of inequality.’
Women need to trust their intuition because such experiences are often impossible to prove at law, and/or may be unintentional and even unrecognised by perpetrators who have been conditioned by prejudices that have become so ingrained they pass unquestioned.
The physical reaction can be as extreme as that feeling you get when you walk down a street in the dark and hear the quickening of footsteps behind you, or as subtle as a mild increase in your heart rate. But paying attention to the physical response instinct arouses can help a victim of discrimination address it and better defend themselves.
3. Hypothesise, prepare and practice a response
Awareness of both the definitions and physical reactions empowers women to imagine how they might like to respond to various hypothetical scenarios. It also gives them a better chance of staying calm and asking questions like: ‘Why is that?’ or ‘What’s your reasoning on that?’
And the catch-all: ‘That doesn’t feel right…If you were in my position, how would you respond to what you just said to me?’ It is important too to reinforce that these women are not the ones doing anything wrong. It’s the twenty-first century, the digital age, and guess what? You can have a career and babies.
We also encourage women to proactively manage their situations. Many women who have returned to work in a flexible capacity are ambushed at performance review time with the option of a redundancy or to return full-time because apparently the status quo is not working. Mitigating such circumstances by regularly asking for stakeholder feedback, including from managers, is more than just a good defence strategy; it is empowering.
Over the coming weeks and months there will no doubt be debate about the findings of the Human Rights Commission’s report into pregnancy-related discrimination. Indeed, already there are questions around whether respondents’ experiences were in accordance with legal definitions of discrimination, or whether they simply ‘felt’ they had been discriminated against. These debates are of course important, but let’s not allow them to impede the response needed to enable women and girls, and therefore our society, to thrive.
Managing pregnancy and parental leave is not without its complications for workplaces, but it is certainly easier in a workplace culture that values honesty, open communication and respect. If leaders are seriously committed to equality, and creating diverse and inclusive societies, they need to address sexism, starting by empowering women to defend themselves without fear of recrimination.
Of course, we also need to evolve our policies and laws to reflect the changing attitudes and expectations of society.
Mostly, however, we need leadership: from men who will model appropriate behaviours towards women, to give permission to bystanders to call out bad behaviour, and to ensure every business case and policy designed to promote equality reflects what was so eloquently affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.