This article by WENLEI MA news.com.au 28 August 2014, talks about the experiences of many pregnant employees who, once they are pregnant are ‘frozen out’ of general office day to day activities. Sometimes this is by just one person, in some cases it is that person’s manager and in some cases it is a freezing out by a number of people. What generally happens in that these women feel awful during one of the happiest times of their lives. Sadly, many of the women referred to in this article are high achievers who went through such an appalling experience whilst pregnant at work that they no longer wanted to return to the workplace.
So two things struck me about this article;
Firstly, it seems that this type of behaviour is common and is a tactic used by managers to either ‘get rid’ of the woman involved or to send her a message that they are displeased. They think that they have been inconvenienced by the potential time off required for that employee to have the baby.
Secondly, the issue of how this treatment affects the women is also interesting. This is most concerning and it is something that I have certainly seen before and not just with pregnant women. I have also experienced this behaviour from a male boss when I had challenged him on my renumeration package. Originally it was agreed that it would be increased in the first three months of employment and it was not tied to performance, but when the time rolled around he conveniently ‘forgot’ to speak to me about it. This meant that I had to tackle him on the subject, but instead of him just working through it with me or perhaps instigating a performance review, he decided to take offence that I had the gaul to ask for what was agreed and proceeded to stop speaking to me!! Yes you heard right. My manager decided that he would stop speaking to me and try to ignore me as much as possible and at the time I was a senior manager with most of the staff reporting to me. Can you believe it! Well I can because since then I have heard a number of women tell me that same sort of story about their experience with their boss or organisation. Often these women were, like me asking for what they were entitled to, others had disagreed or challenged their male manager and were now facing retribution for doing so. Strangely much of this behaviour is readily accepted in men but seen as ‘bossy’ or ‘aggressive’ in women. Why? because we are not behaving in the way that these men expect us to.
Unlike many women, I stuck it out and made a point of speaking to my manager and crashing through the wall of silence and the associated bad feelings that being shut out gives you. Unfortunately many, if not most women don’t. They leave the workplace preferring to create their own consulting companies or similar and we lose them from the corporate world all together. Again, sadly many of the men that I have spoken to about this issue tell me that ‘clearly they (the women) were not cut out for it (the work) in the first place’. This is the legacy that we are leaving by ‘opting out’. Some of us need to remain and tuff it out if we are to ever see a change because the exodus of women often just demonstrates to male managers that women are just not committed and likely to leave at the first sign that things are getting uncomfortable. Of course in a ‘mans world’, toughness, grit and determination agains the odds is seen as something to be respected and admired, and yes their experiences are invariably different, but no more important than what we expect many female managers to go through in the face of discrimination that can boarder on hostility and persecution.
Women don’t leave the corporate environment because it is too tough, they leave because they just don’t see the point in sticking around in toxic environments and being treated badly. Many women want to make a different to the world and this type of situation just holds them up, so they leave to pursue another way of achieving the same goal. Many leave because they just get sick of butting up against the masculinised way that are organisations are structured. Often this is at odds with a women’s aspirations, but not her ability.
We need to change the way that we do corporations, we need to pull them apart and put them back together in a way that recognises diversity and difference. I don’t mean just at a surface level. I mean that we need to start completely rethinking almost everything we know and think about in terms of the way that our corporations work and are managed. Changing behaviours is one thing but I think to make this change sustainable we need to also look at the underlying assumptions that we have on how we are rewarded, what we think of as value, what is performance and how do these things fit together to create a fully functioning environment that is not largely hostile to one gender. At the moment women are still working in environments where most functions, rules, policies, structures and even the business models used to create our strategies are largely masculine – or at least have been developed by and perpetuated by a largely male group, because women have not been involved until fairly recent history.
So unfortunately, Gender Discrimination is still rife in Australian Companies and pregnant women will continue to struggle until we address some of the underlying issues.