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

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage