Should small businesses be allowed to ask women about their family planning?

I was interviewed on STV recently about the EHRC research on employers dismaying attitudes towards questioning women about pregnancy. After 20 years consulting on these issues, I particularly took exception to the finding that 40% of employers felt pregnant women ‘take advantage of their pregnancy’. Another speaker on the panel argued that businesses ‘are for making a profit – not to become mini social services for their employees’.

Clearly, businesses do need to make a profit, but the speaker operated on the assumption that doing well by your female employees and making a profit are somehow mutually exclusive.

But we know happy employees are engaged, loyal and give more ‘discretionary effort’ – that magic sauce every employer wants. Treating people as if they are ‘mini-maternity time bombs’ won’t get you that discretionary effort and is more likely to lead to higher turnover of women of reproductive age, which drives this self-fulfilling prophecy.

Let’s see how this vicious cycle initially works for many of my corporate clients, particularly in our presentation on ‘Keeping Good People for Longer’: “She’s a parent who I don’t really trust...and I can’t figure out why she’s not going that extra mile for me.  Now she’s about to leave…. which proves I was right about working mothers all along.’

People like to assume that small businesses should be exempt from pesky legislation because on a small team ‘everyone is too valuable’ to be pregnant and need a break. Indeed on my own team, two of my first hires took protracted leaves for personal reasons. One got the unplanned opportunity of circumnavigating the globe in a sailboat and the other went cycling around China for 3 months. One told me in interview, the other did not. Both came back, grateful for my flexibility, galvanised and all the more loyal. We had our best financial years ever.

However, both were young men without children – but they too wanted personal time. These guys were great workers, they were the right people for the job, but to keep them, I had to work with them and what they needed  – and I was paid back in spades. Should I have been able to ‘future proof’ their employment when we first started working together by thinking to ask ‘Do you think you’ll ever want to take a round the world trip in the next year or two?’ No, it didn’t occur to me and we simply worked around it. Notably both men were regarded as complete heroes by other guys when they returned – something we rarely see when a mother takes parenting leave; though it’s far less glamorous and arguably harder than a cycling holiday.

Plus, much like reproduction – their trips might not have happened at all or on their schedule; timing being a challenge couples face all the time. Mother nature may not play ball with your fertility just because you were a ‘good girl’ and told your new boss you were thinking of having a baby in the next 18 months. By contrast, another member of my team who, by all the indicators employers feel they should be told about (she has 3 daughters and her grandmother living with her) is actually my most productive, and again completely loyal and reliable – I like to think because of the flexibility I give her.

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