Treating women in the workplace in the same way to heterosexual men is not equality. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Why do we still see equality for pregnant women and mothers as “special treatment”?

Everyone benefits from so-called “women’s work”.

According to the feminist and civil rights activist Florynce Kennedy, “if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament”. I think that she is right. If men got pregnant – not in some wild revision of history, but right now, overnight – there’d be no fussing over “nuanced moral arguments” and “balancing the rights of the child against those of the father”. We’d simply think “his body, his choice” and get on our way.   

But what if a pregnant man did not want an abortion? In that case we would be forced to see pregnancy in a completely different light. If pregnancy became something that happened to people who matter, we’d have to appreciate it as actual, meaningful work. We’d see pregnant men not as bloated leeches, screwing over employers and the welfare state, but as masterful creators of human life. We’d be in awe of them. We wouldn’t force a man to stay pregnant but we’d worship him if he did. Women, meanwhile, would be reminded of their inferior, non-gestator status every day of their lives.

Of course we do not live in such a world, but one in which pregnant women and new mothers are vilified at every turn. We don’t respect the person who creates new life. We call the foetus inside her “the unborn child”, as though she is a mere waiting room, incidental to the formation of a person who will one day breathe on his or her own. We fret over the impact her pregnancy will have on her employer, the environment, the economy, anyone but her. We think of pregnancy in terms of what it means she cannot do (all of that paid work which, since she’s just a woman, isn’t a basic necessity but something she only does to feel “empowered”).  We might coo over the odd celebrity mum-to-be who manages not to offend our sensibilities (that’s you, Kate) but by and large we see pregnancy as a wilful opting-out of general usefulness. People might not say this out loud, but they think it all the same.

For instance, consider this scenario: you are having a conversation with someone who claims to be pro-feminist and they will say something along the lines of “since women were given equality…” or “since women were allowed into the workplace…” It is at this point that you realise that a) they see this apparent granting of equality as an act of generosity on the part of men and b) they have this bizarre idea that until the 1970s women didn’t do any work. You get the sense that to them, this “women being equal to men” thing is not a basic human truth, but a matter of politeness and tolerance. Deep down they know we’re not really equal – otherwise where have we been all this time? – but they’re trying to be kind. They’re too tactful to mention the basic design flaw but we know the one of which they’re thinking (women get pregnant! Or if they don’t, that means they’re weird, and who’d want to trust one then?).

Certainly, some feminists have argued that women’s current inferior social status can be traced back to the fact that unlike men, women constitute group in which some members get pregnant. Nevertheless, what this does not mean is that the risk of pregnancy makes women inherently inferior to men. It’s an arbitrary historical development in which one group (males) found a way to control the resources of another (females). It does not mean women are less useful than men. As the philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards points out “it seems most unlikely that so much effort would have been put into making women artificially dependent on men if they had been naturally so”. There’s nothing wrong with us or our bodies; it’s our status in a world constructed to meet the needs of only half the population that is letting us down. When people say “the pay gap is really a maternity gap” what they really mean is “we’ve decided it’s okay to exploit you since you’re not the ‘right’ kind of person for this world”.

And it’s in this world that new mothers such as Angela Ames can lose their jobs, simply for being women. The US Supreme Court has ruled that Ames – who was not provided with facilities to express milk on her return to work after maternity leave, was ordered to catch up on all of the tasks she had missed within two weeks, and was then told “just go home and be with your babies” – was not a victim of sex discrimination because what happened to her could, in theory, have happened to a man. Everything about the decision is ludicrous. For instance, the court has claimed that firing a woman for breastfeeding is not discriminatory because men can lactate under certain circumstances, thus showing themselves entirely ignorant of the fact that expressing milk to feed a baby is not the same as lactation (the former is work – pumping, sterilising, storing – while the latter is just a biological process). The court also found “just go home and be with your babies” to be a gender-neutral statement, presumably since it doesn’t literally include the words “you pathetic woman!” I think it is obvious that if an employer said the same thing to a male employee, the meaning would be different. Language is interpreted through the filter of different social relations and positionings (I guess the court would also argue that “nice tits!” isn’t sexual harassment because some men have moobs).

The overall impression from the Ames case is that her employer considered her an imposition for not being the default non-postpartum employee. What is shocking is that two courts of law have supported this view. They have understood “equal treatment” to mean “treating all people in exactly the same way, regardless of their social realities,” and as is so often the case with workplace discrimination, “treating people in exactly the same way” seems to be “treating everyone like a heterosexual married man who has a wife at home to take care of all of life’s invisible work”. This is not a question of pregnancy and childbirth being inconveniences that employers have to work around in order to appease inconvenient women. Everyone benefits from so-called “women’s work”. It is about a social and economic structure which is, from top to bottom, set up to extract labour from women at minimal cost while pretending to be doing them a favour.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women are not discriminated against because they are pregnant or breastfeeding; it because of their social position as women. If the biological rules changed overnight and someone of higher status – a man – was expressing milk at work, he would not be treated in the same way as Ames. Still seeing his body as the default body, we would consider expressing facilities as basic a need as having an on-site toilet or kitchen. We’d ask female employees – those inferior creatures – to cover for him, maybe offering him a drink since expressing is such thirsty work. The perceived social and economic “uselessness” of pregnant and breastfeeding women is anchored not in their biology, but in the centuries of sexism used to justify their exploitation. It’s about time we got paid our dues.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.