Despite laws preventing it, many women in practice are asked questions about having children, or if they have them, what their childcare arrangements are, during the interview process.
A survey by the Equality and Human Rights Commission last year revealed that one in four employers think it’s reasonable to ask a woman about her pregnancy plans during a job interview.
Not only is such questioning in breach of employment law, it is often a hurtful and intrusive question if a candidate has had a miscarriage or is currently undergoing fertility treatment. Such questions are rarely asked of male candidates.
The newly elected opposition leader in New Zealand recently reacted angrily to repeated questions about whether or not she plans to have children. Jacinda Ardern told a TV morning show host that it was “totally unacceptable” to be asked those questions in 2017.
This is not the first time a female politician has faced comment from media or opponents regarding not having children – here in the UK, Andrea Leadsom made headlines last year and was forced to abandon her bid for leadership of the Conservative Party after saying that being a mum meant she had a ‘very real’ stake in the country’s future; a comment that was widely interpreted as a dig at her opponent, now prime minister, Theresa May.
Jacob Demeza-Wilkinson is an employment law consultant for the ELAS Group. He says:
“This incident and the comments which are being left on some of the coverage of it go to highlight the unfortunate views that a number of people still hold regarding maternity leave. Let me be very clear about this – with the current employment laws that we have in place here in the UK, these are outdated views that no longer have a place in the workplace.
“Whether you agree with the law or not, it is there for a reason and needs to be followed. A woman should never be asked about their intentions to have children at any point, whether they are a candidate or a current employee. During recruitment, this sort of question sets off alarm bells instantly. Not only is the comment itself potentially discriminatory but it gives the candidate all the ammunition they need to bring a claim against a business if they are not successful. Even if you have a very good reason for rejecting the applicant, the fact that you have asked the question will cause problems. The best way to avoid this is, of course, to avoid asking any questions about marital status or children at all.
“When it comes to your current employees the same warnings apply. If you ask the question, this on its own would be considered discriminatory but if at a later date, having asked the question, you were to dismiss the employee – even if it you have a genuine reason for doing so – it could easily be construed that you have dismissed them as a result of their intentions to have children which, again, opens the door for a costly discrimination claim.
“Our advice is always to avoid asking questions like this at all costs, regardless of whether the employee/candidate is male or female.”