Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

It's time for everyone to give us mums a break

I'm not one of those naysayers who'll tell you - ideally on a radio phone-in - that society has been on the moral slide since the Sixties.

It doesn't take a clunky episode of George Gently to remind us of the gains we've made in terms of tolerance since the days when racist chatter was a dinner party staple and homosexuality was widely regarded amongst even the most educated classes as unnatural and shameful.

But what the last few decades have also, depressingly, clarified is that you can't legislate for compassion. And that, with a little encouragement, there are still loads of people happy to treat vulnerable people with contempt.

Take 26-year-old Lisa Needham. Earlier this year the Glasgow hotel manager discovered she was pregnant, a revelation she describes as "a happy surprise".

When she told her boss, rather than congratulate her, even through gritted teeth, he simply asked her what she was going to do about it.

A week later he announced that, despite having promoted her six weeks previously, he wasn't happy with her work and was thus demoting her to a two day a week minimum wage waitress job.

Reeling with shock, and without much fight in her, she capitulated to what she felt was pressure to resign. Panicked and poverty-stricken, she then decided to have an abortion.

This week Ms Needham revealed that, though she was eventually rewarded £30,000 after suing the hotel for sexual discrimination, she is yet to see a penny from her ex-employers. They have also ignored all of her lawyers' letters.

We all know Lisa Needham's case is far from exceptional. That great British business doyen Lord Alan Sugar said himself that he'd think twice about employing women of child-bearing age because it was "risky".

Most of us know women who have been cold-shouldered at work after making their joyful announcement of pending parenthood. And it often gets worse on the return to the office - a close friend of mine received an official warning (from a man with no children) when she couldn't attend one day of a (another stupid, pointless, patronising) 'skill-augmenting' course because her son was ill.

I'm not sure why, but the last few years in particular have seen a rise in militant anti-motherhood, not just among increasingly squeezed business owners, but within a certain pocket of the chattering media classes. I've lost count of the amount of articles I've read lately by child-free women who claim to bravely confront the myth of the superior status of mothers.

This usually appears to be achieved by courageously refusing to give heavily pregnant women a seat on the bus, or trying to make them feel bad if they ask to leave early on account of little Jimmy being in the school play/locked out of the house/in an incubator. "You chose to be a mum," these unsisterly harridans froth (which they can't possibly know for a start). "Why should I cut you any slack?" Um, because we live together in a society which needs a little kindness if it isn't to cut itself to shreds in the next few decades?

In a recent UK poll, more than half of managers said they weighed up the chances of a woman getting pregnant - including her age and marital status - when deciding whether to hire her.

George Osborne's enthusiasm for de-regulating small businesses is likely to lead to a legal accommodation for this kind of prejudicial bullying in the coming years. How heart-warming for the carriers of the next generation.

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