by LUCINDA IACONO
As more and more women enter the professional working spheres and the gender disparity lessens (however slight that may be), their reproductive choices seem to become the business of everyone around them. The choice to (or not to) procreate is suddenly a choice made not by themselves or with a partner, but rather by the consequences that may occur in the workplace, and the criticism that comes from not conforming to a typical gender narrative. This is a result of two main factors. First, the gender role hangover that is slowly being overcome in recent years is still subliminally influencing women’s choices and expectations. Second, there’s the idea that pregnant women and women with young children are a hindrance to business. The two opposing forms of structural violence create a “doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t” paradox that strengthens glass ceilings.
When a friend of mine fell pregnant as a young woman with a low income, she sought employment at several hospitality venues. At interviews she would tell potential employers of her some 6 years experience in the industry and long list of accolades. She would also mention out of courtesy that she was three months pregnant. My friend was unable to gain successful employment until she asked advice from other mothers and ceased mentioning her pregnancy to employers.
The idea that pregnancy is some sort of inconvenience to business is not new. In fact, the beloved POTUS Donald Trump used those exact words, verbatim, 13 years ago in an interview with NBC News (conveniently also 13 years before he signed agreements making it virtually impossible for American women and a lot harder for women internationally to get an abortion). He said he believed that one of his employers should have felt pressure to return to work three months post-partum for fear that she would be replaced. The inconvenience of pregnancy to businesses is a mere symptom of the deeper issue of structural gender violence and the traditional expectations that still exist for women. Why is it assumed that a pregnant woman will immediately drop every other responsibility to pursue motherhood?
The notion is not even founded in statistics. A study from financial services company Morgan Stanley showed that stock prices go up and costs go down when pregnant employees are treated equally, and there is greater gender diversity in a work place. The fact that pregnancy is treated as some sort of bad omen on business can be put down to nothing but a reinforcement of restrictive, harmful gender roles frank sexism.
Paradoxically, women who choose not to have children also come under fire. This Christmas when I was asked how long I would wait after entering professional legal practice to have a child my family were shocked and offended when they learnt I had every intention to remain childless until death. I explained (not that it was any of their business what I do with my uterus) that this was because not only do I dislike being around children for more than 10 minutes, but I also do not find a long term commitment with a more expensive version of a dog all that attractive (with no disrespect to women who have children of course; it’s just not for me). “Oh, you’ll change your mind”, “It’s different when you’re older”, “you just have to find the right person!”.
Firstly, the idea that one would know I would change my mind is downright absurd. Secondly, my age does not strip me of the right to make reproductive choice. Thirdly, even if I do think that Seth Rogan and I would have tiny little chubby cherub babies, I will never be compelled enough by any man to suddenly want to change my mind. How dare a woman not fulfil her purpose on this earth to procreate, right?
And it’s not just me. So many women who choose not to have children for whatever reason are unnecessarily questioned about it. Just this month within an hour of becoming the premier of NSW, Gladys Berejeklian was questioned on her childlessness. A reporter suggested that she would be less relatable to families in NSW as she did not have any children of her own.
The true inequality comes when one realises that politicians such as Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull were never questioned on their ability to relate to women when they cut funding to Domestic violence centres or planned to cut funding for pap-smears and paid parental leave. They weren’t questioned on their appeal to students and young people when they introduced fee deregulation and backed new lockout laws. They weren’t questioned on their likeness to indigenous peoples when they insisted that living in rural communities was “a lifestyle choice” and refuse to change the date of Australia Day. Gladys was not questioned out of actual concern that she would not relate to families. She was questioned because of the deeply ingrained societal myth that woman’s place is in the home, not in the Parliament, and if a woman disobeys this, there must be something wrong with her.
The fibres of misogyny are so tightly woven around this child vs work paradox that women become trapped by employers and crushed by glass ceilings. If women choose to have a child, they become unemployable throughout their pregnancy and early motherhood. If women choose not to have a child, they are seen as selfish and greedy and not fit for a high powered position. This begs the question – It’s 2017. Why on earth is the world still more concerned with my uterus than my skills?
Lucinda Iacono is a second-year Law/Arts student and the NUSA Women’s Convener. More information about the Women’s Collective can be found at www.nusa.org.au/women.
Story image: ‘Emma’ by Anna Maria Liljestrand on Flickr.