When 50% of bosses think their schedule should affect your reproduction....

Nearly two thirds of bosses think female candidates should have to tell prospective bosses if they are pregnant. And a third felt they should be able to ask a prospective candidate about her future plans for having a family, both according to a recent damning survey by the EHRC (Equality & Human Rights Commission) of over 1100 senior business leaders in the private sector.

While it's been illegal for employers to ask these kinds of questions for decades, clearly they do ask or at least think they should be entitled to do so. I was recently on STV talking about these dismal EHRC findings, which are all the more shocking given that 70% of UK women are in paid employment. In Scotland, we've had a falling birth rate since 2008. Clearly, our need for women to both have children and work is not going to change anytime soon, yet it's clear from the EHRC findings that many business leaders see pregnancy as a nuisance that they don't want to pay for and can't plan around. In fact, just because women may have pregnancy plans doesn't mean they will happen. The medical journal, The lancet, showed that only just over half of all pregnancies are actively planned - the rest were unplanned or left women feeling ambivalent. so asking women about their 'plans' may be a moot point in any case! The truth is, unexpected events happen in the workplace all the time and we work around them. When asked if such a line of questioning should be allowed, I argued:

‘Sure, let’s ask women about their child-rearing plans, providing we ask everyone about whether they have older relatives or dependents who may ever need their help, if they have mental health problems, addiction issues or perhaps a pesky health problem that is yet undiagnosed’.

Or perhaps they play sports, routinely leave work for practice, matches and tours (for which they are often regarded as a well-rounded hero) but might get injured which could put them out of commission. And that’s all before we hope they don’t get hit by a bus… That would be a nuisance for employers indeed, but all of the above happens and can create as much ‘disruption’ as hiring a working mother or even a woman who intends to become one. Disruption in the new normal and something we talk about in ‘Keeping Good People Longer’ presentation.

Asking such personal questions that are often completely worthless is a non-starter. You are essentially asking a candidate to predict the future – something not even the best applicant could ever do. The truth is that hiring is always a risk – and no one knows what responsibilities, goals and choices may be looming on the horizon. Actually, in our experience most women are more concerned about maintaining their career post pregnancy than they are looking to ‘take advantage’ of an innocent employer.

However, the bigger risk is in ruling out the best candidate simply because she has children or may at some point, in order to favour someone you assume would never have those responsibilities. Employers should remember, that when you start asking about childcare and reproduction, you send a message to a candidate that you’re old school and would favour an average worker who could give impossible guarantees about their ‘commitment’ over the best candidate who will make the most of the time he or she is actually on the job.

If you want to talk about the future with a candidate, use your precious time to use evidence-based questions on what they’d do for your company based on what they’ve actually done before, rather than wasting time speculating on whether or not they’ll ever need flexibility or god forbid, have a child.

Dr Suzanne Doyle-Morris is the Founder of Inclusiq and a Women's Enterprise Scotland Ambassador.

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