“Advancing Women” by… Not Employing Us

// 19 May 2009

Tags: , , ,

Bafflingly, that seems to be the position of Sylvia Tidy-Harris, who you may have seen on the programme Kate appeared on and talked about in her post yesterday.

I took part in a debate with Tidy-Harris on BBC Radio London yesterday (scroll to an hour and just under three minutes into the programe), who says she doesn’t employ women of child-bearing age and yet is also described in her biog on the Womenspeakers site, as “passionate” about the advancement of women in business. I think it’s a shame that passion does not seem to extend beyond those women who can afford to take the financial risk of starting their own businesses. Clearly any women of “childbearing age” who are looking for employment have zero chance of any such advancement in her business, seeing as they won’t even get a look-in.

Somewhat confused by Tidy-Harris’s position, I looked her up to find out more and, to be fair, she has said, in a past article, that the government needs to “wake up to the fact that it should fully compensate firms with fewer than 10 employees for the cost of maternity leave.” The trouble is that, in the meantime, she seems to think employers steering clear of a large number of women just because they’ve concluded those women probably have the equipment to bear children is acceptable. (And, of course, not all women of “child-bearing age” can actually have children anyway so not only is Tidy-Harris seemingly okay with penalising women purely because of a perceived and possible ability to have children but she is also being completely unfair to women for whom that is not a possibility.)

She also said it’s women who have “caused the problem.” Well, yes I suppose it is insomuch as being able to get pregnant and give birth is the cause but the problem is the prejudice and discrimination that all too many people harbour in response to that reality. As Kate said here yesterday, it’s actually sexism and misogyny holding women back and to suggest its a case of “women” being the problem is nothing more than a plain example of that.

Comments From You

polly styrene // Posted 19 May 2009 at 10:53 pm

“She also said it’s women who have caused the problem”

So some time ago an ovum and a sperm got together and thought, ‘let’s make a baby with xx chromosomes and female reproductive organs – then WE can have babies and really bugger up Sylvia Tidy-Harris’s business’

Not the most plausible of scenarios. And where does she think she came from?

Kate // Posted 20 May 2009 at 10:22 am

It goes without saying clearly, but I just find her comments so offensive. Regardless of the arguments surrounding whether small businesses can afford maternity pay, a blanket ban on women of child-bearing age is ludicrous. She’s ruling out the vast majority of the female population and how dare a complete stranger second guess when and whether I’m going to have children just because I look fertile at 20 paces. If I’m applying for a job I am doing so because I think I am qualified and I think it can fit around the lifestyle I want.

I do think the strategy for getting around this fear is to improve paternity leave for men, if employers were forced to accept that any employee under 45 or so could at any point take time off for child care then they would soon realise it is not a tenable position to keep the “no breeder” signs on the door.

We also have a ridiculous culture of presenteeism in this country, fuelled largely by men who think their penises look longer for every hour they spend at their desk at night. Longer hours do not equal more productivity. I reckon I could do my job 99% as well on shorter hours, allowing me to pick up my hypothetical child from child care etc. I’m lucky that my employer would at least allow me to do this, but I’m confident I’d be looking at more than a 1% pay cut.

Michelle // Posted 20 May 2009 at 10:46 am

It’s not that all women of child-bearing age actually want to have or plan to have children either. It puts one in the defensive position from the get-go, trying to consider ways of making your lack of reproductive intent clear on your CV somehow when dealing with people like this and the Alan Sugars of the world.

sianmarie // Posted 20 May 2009 at 10:59 am

words fail me, it is so stupid. giving that you can’t tell by looking whether a woman is able to have children or not, with women reaching sexual maturity younger, and IVF allowing women to have children later, you could argue that from looking at a woman, that all women from 13 to mid 50s are of child bearing age, so she therefore can employ no women! as well as the horrible ignoring of the fact that not all women can or want to have children, that just because someone is a woman then she must automatically be planning on having a baby soon. and how dare she argue that it’s women’s fault – would she prefer that no one ever had a baby? who in the future would run her business then? this makes me so angry! we live in a patriarchy that refuses to give women’s bodies respect, or respect motherhood, or the choice not to have a child, this is where the problem lies, not in women’s biological capacity for pregnancy. rage!

Seamus // Posted 20 May 2009 at 11:28 am

Small business owners often exist on a knife edge.

The difference between success and going out of business can be small.

Is it fair that small business owners such a Tidy-Harris avoid women of child bearing age?

Clearly not.

But the world of capitalism isn’t fair, it can be a bloody unpleasant place, and its populated by people more concerned with not going bankrupt than with furthering the cause of women.

When struggling business owners are faced with the constant threat of failing, they’ll do what they have to do to survive, and will invariably circum-navigate any attempts to force them down a more risky business path.

What’s holding women back is the fact that pregnancy and capitalist risk-taking are quite simply incompatible.

Which reveals that capitalism itself is sexist and misogynistic, rather than the individuals who are forced to survive within a capitalist framework.

Complaining about individual small business owners is therefore pointless; what’s needed is to create a framework where small businesses can employ women of child-bearing age without added risk.

Rather than criticise Tidy-Harris for trying to ensure her business survives, it would be better to focus on her excellent idea that the government should fully compensate firms with fewer than 10 employees for the cost of maternity leave.

Madeleine // Posted 20 May 2009 at 11:39 am

Next thing they’ll also be discriminating (more!) against women who are over childbearing age, in case they have an aged parent or relative to look after!

Holly Combe // Posted 20 May 2009 at 3:50 pm

Seamus, I agree with what you say about capitalism itself being sexist and misogynistic but, while I can see it is clearly that framework that prompts some small businesses to operate in a sexist way, we aren’t ever going to change things if we leave the analysis at that and just say “it isn’t anyone’s fault.” For a system to thrive, you need people to keep perpetuating it and I think it’s also worth bearing in mind that without people (customers and workers as well as employers) there is no business. If enough people accept that the world is changing and refuse to just default to “it’s just the way things are” or “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”, that will surely eventually translate into a different work culture with different time norms and greater flexibility for all. As I said in the radio discussion, a major part of the problem is the pitiful amount of paternity leave men tend to be offered, meaning that even those who want to do their bit are pulled towards a more traditional model that will do everything it can to keep women at home and men working long hours.

I did mention (in this blog entry) Tidy-Harris’s previous suggestion about government compensation for firms. However, she didn’t push this point to the forefront during our discussion and she certainly doesn’t seem to be putting out the message that she finds the choice she’s made regrettable or unfortunate. If anything she seems to celebrate it as a controversial and daring strategy (treading where others fear to) that really isn’t morally problematic at all. That deserves criticism, as far as I’m concerned.

Madeleine // Posted 20 May 2009 at 4:21 pm

To state that “capitalism itself is sexist and misogynistic” is completely naive and a cop out. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Where do human rights begin? In small places, close to home”. That’s where sexism and misogyny begin as well. And where they should be eradicated or not allowed to begin.

Can you imagine if any woman publicly stated that she wouldn’t employ men? There would be an outcry and no doubt a flurry of aggrieved men suing her ass. But if someone says they won’t employ women it’s the usual patronising, ‘oh well, it’s a tough old world, they have the children’, blah blah.

Capitalism (and any other system) will continue to be sexist and misogynistic as long as there are sexist, misogynist individuals operating within it.

Shea // Posted 20 May 2009 at 4:56 pm

@ Holly Combe & Madeleine – hear, hear!

I’m in total agreement with what you have said.

I can’t believe the Tidy Harris’s of the world haven’t been called out on their bullsh*t yet anyway. Until recently I was employed on a long term contract whilst the woman I replaced was on maternity leave. She received statutory maternity leave (which she will have paid for over the years with her NI contributions) and some maternity pay from the organisation I worked for. But they were using the money that would have made up the bulk of her salary TO PAY ME!

In total contradiction to Tidy Harris’s argument- they were actually making a profit on her and me (two employees for the price of one) not a loss. Now this is a big organisation we are talking about, but I don’t think it is a model that isn’t being replicated up and down the country in small and large businesses. So please can we put paid to the assumption that having “child – bearing” women in an organisation necessarily costs more money.

It doesn’t.

Cara // Posted 20 May 2009 at 6:34 pm

The ‘small companies can’t afford to employ women of childbearing age’ excuse is bullshit. The govt. meets 90% of maternity pay for small organisations.


‘Maternity pay is met by the employer and refunded by the government. Depending on the size of the organisation, the Department of Work and Pensions repays between 90% and 105% of the figure to the employer, with smaller organisations getting greater compensation.

This means if you’re employed by a very small company you need not feel overly concerned about the impact of your leave on budgets as your employer will be more than compensated.’

Shelley // Posted 20 May 2009 at 7:20 pm

Good lord, 40th anniversary of the equal pay act and we still have the Tidy Harris types to deal with. Yuck. Seems to me that everytime Sylvia Tidy-Harris comes out of the woodwork it’s with the same lines every time- boring. ‘One trick pony’ was what one blogger said I think.

Anyway. listened to the programme and thought you did good, Holly. Yes, we shouldn’t have to ‘do it all’. The traditional man-breadwinner was never expected to and men today STILL aren’t!!

A different Helen // Posted 20 May 2009 at 8:50 pm

I dont understand why employers consider women to be more expensive and risky to employ, on the grounds that they might have a baby. As the programme stated, men tend on average to demand higher salaries and larger performance bonuses than women, which employers seem happy to supply, even though paying women less is supposed to be illegal. In my experience men are also much more likely to move jobs to further their careers and increase their salaries, forcing companies to shell out large amounts of money recruiting a replacement and training them up. This costs a lot more than a bit of maternity cover. Surely its men employers should be wary of?

Catherine // Posted 21 May 2009 at 11:02 am

This isn’t just a private sector issue either, unfortunately. My sister currently works for a government funded public sector organisation and despite a publicly stated equality policy is in the position of having to conceal her pregnancy. She is four months pregnant and up for promotion. The decision is to be made on the promotion at the end of June and in the meantime she has to keep it to herself as it has been made clear to her by her boss – a woman without children – that she doesn’t believe in promoting women with children to management positions. I talk with her about this and really feel like I’ve stepped back in time. How can we still be in this position?

kristel // Posted 21 May 2009 at 6:47 pm

Carol Sarler has jumped on this bandwagon and written a deeply offensive and disgusting (even for her) article in the Daily Hate, saying that bosses are right not to employ women without children because they’re cold, calculating and weird and lack “an essential humanity”! I’ve read some crazy shit by her in the past, but this time I really think she’s gone too far.

Whether or not I’ve got children and why or why not, is NO ONE’s business but mine, unless I choose to discuss it. And to suggest that women without children (unless they are what Ms Sarler charmingly describes as “the unwilling barren”, who are to be “pitied”) shouldn’t be employed and lack humanity is just outrageous.

Anyone who can write the kind of stuff she does is seriously lacking in that essential humanity.

Sometimes I really wonder if it’s 2009 and I’m not going to wake up in the Middle Ages.

Rachel // Posted 21 May 2009 at 6:57 pm

Although it’s a drop in the ocean, I thought I would mention that I work for an organisation that offers good maternity leave/pay (significantly more than statutory) and has been thoroughly supportive so far in my pregnancy (now 7 months pregnant). My boss has been discussing the possibility of my promotion with me and her boss as if I wasn’t pregnant, and they are showing every sign of being thoroughly supportive once I return to work.

I thought you might be heartened to hear that there are some more enlightened employers out there!

Holly Combe // Posted 21 May 2009 at 7:17 pm

Re: Carol Sarler. So basically, we’re damned by some bosses if we do have kids and damned by others if we don’t. Nice.

Meanwhile, men (the cis ones anyway) are seemingly exempt from the whole thing because they don’t get pregnant and their identities as “bachelors” (no shame there!) or “Family Men” are not seen as public property.

Holly Combe // Posted 21 May 2009 at 7:25 pm

Rachel: Yes, after hearing about Catherine’s sister’s thoroughly depressing experience, it’s good to know that some organisations are more forward-thinking. It’s not all bad, thankfully… Or, rather, not that thankfully, seeing as we clearly still have such a long way to go!

Princess Rot // Posted 21 May 2009 at 9:20 pm

Maybe Tidy-Harris and Carol Sarler from the Daily Fail could get together and have a fight till the death to see which of them is the One True Woman.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 21 May 2009 at 11:49 pm

I blogged on the myth that women ‘choose’ to work a while back- http://letterbyafeminist.blogspot.com/2008/07/maternity-leave.html

Holly Combe // Posted 24 May 2009 at 10:45 pm

Re: Radio London debate. On wrapping up the discussion, presenter Joanne Good took the view that one either falls “in one camp or the other” when it comes to this issue: those who’ve given birth and gone back to work after taking time off or “the person like me who never has” and is “watching the whole system revolve around it.”

Funnily enough, one of the many reasons why I too never have has been that I was under the impression that the capitalist sytem ruling the world of work -as we know it- is generally geared towards people who don’t give birth… The same system that, whether we like it or not, renders any of us who happen to be equipped with a womb more vulnerable to becoming reliant on a “breadwinner” should we ever use it or, indeed, by default even if we don’t.

Maybe they should have got that Carol Sarler in. She’d have surely sniffed out my lack of childbirth experience in a heartbeat! ;-)

Joanna Graham // Posted 29 August 2010 at 7:26 pm

Cara, you seem to have forgotten that if you run a small business you have to pay for a)advertising the the post or use an agency costing thousands of pounds. b) the payment of annual leave for both the employee and the temporary replacement. c) the accrued rights of the temp employee esp if the maternity goes over a year with any leave, parental leave etc added on. d)The inconvenience of requests for strange work patterns when they return from maternity leave. e) the rise in absence caused by maternity related illness the child care issues etc. My business nearly went bankrupt after taking on an employee who went on one maternity leave one after another for 3 years in total. It is an experience i will never repeat, an no the equality commission dont care about your business in such circumstances. When i employ someone for 35 hours x 5 days a week that is what i expect, children or no children and i did not work 12 hours a day for 6 days a week for several years to start my business so as to support women bring up children. If you cant provide the requirements of the job, dont apply – simple.

Holly Combe // Posted 30 August 2010 at 12:04 am

Joanna, you use an example of employing someone for 35 hours a week and then not fulfilling that. Obviously, I don’t know what you already have in place but I’d suggest having positions that are set up in a more flexible way from the start (i.e. part time and jobshare) would be more helpful to a business in the long run. Childbirth is still a fact of life and mothers shouldn’t be expected to just give up on the idea of a career in a way that fathers are never asked to.

You say your experience of an employee going on “one maternity leave one after another for 3 years in total” is one you will never repeat. How would you attempt to guarantee that?

It seems we’re all still suffering from the hangover of the old expectation for men to be breadwinners and women to stay out of the workplace. It’s startling to think how many businesses are ill-equipped to cope with women’s emancipation -even now- but I don’t think that should serve as an excuse for employers to attempt to go backwards and discriminate against anyone they think might go on to give birth.

Sarah // Posted 30 August 2010 at 10:29 am

Joanna, what will you do if/when parental leave and childcare responsibilities start to be shared more equally between women and men, so that there’s a fair chance that a man you employ may want to take an extended leave, or indeed work ‘strange patterns’ to take care of his children? Will you refuse to employ anyone of childbearing age, regardless of gender? That could pose a bit of a problem for you, unless you’re going to rely on child labour :)

People have children, get used to it. No, not every individual does, but in general pregnancy and birth and breastfeeding and childcare and family responsibilities are just part of life and society, and you’re fighting a losing battle by trying to deny that or operate business as though these things don’t exist or are not important to the majority of people.

It seems to me there are two ways of dealing with this reality: firstly the ‘traditional’ option of consigning women to unpaid domestic servitude and financial dependence on a man, and men to a ‘workaholic’ breadwinner lifestyle with little involvement in their children’s day to day lives. Few of us would want to go back to that. The other option is for businesses to find a way to adapt to the changes in society and the reality of most people’s lives today.

Sheila // Posted 30 August 2010 at 6:00 pm

I’ve had three maternity leaves in four years. I guess that’d make me unemployable by Tidy-Harris. That’s her loss not mine. In the ten years since my last maternity leave, I’ve had three different employers – each time career progression, my choice to leave. I’m still of child-bearing age. Each employer employs less than 50 people. One employs less than 10 people. Why did they employ me? One word: ability. I was better than the male candidates, every time. When you take someone on in the hope that they’ll stay with you five years or more and exercise all their skill in that five years, six months maternity leave is insignificant. Employers don’t have to pay more than the statutory minimum if they don’t want to. Would I look at an employer who only offered statutory minimum maternity leave? Probably not. And that includes now, when although biologically possible, I am extremely unlikely to have any more children. I care very much that my female colleagues are offered maternity leave (and my male ones paternity leave). I want my employer to employ and retain the best people. It’s your ability not your child-bearing likelihood that most employers (even in supposedly cut throat financial services) evaluate. I don’t want to work for an organisation that prioritises cost-cutting of a short-termist and illegal nature over long-term quality issues. Poor Tidy-Harris is exactly a captain of industry is she? More of a controversial self-publicist. Certainly not a role-model. Anyone who puts those maternity leave concerns above quality factors is dangerously reducing the talent pool from which they can recruit, to their own detriment. Is her business thriving? You know how to vote – with your feet. Don’t use her business.

Horry // Posted 31 August 2010 at 6:28 pm

What Sarah and Sheila just said. Plus the fact that having children can limit you in terms of finances and location, meaning that you might actually be more likely to stay in a job for the long haul (I say this having just gained a promotion after my predecessor – male, childless – departed in a huff at a further promotion going to a pregnant, and hence “disloyal”, woman instead of him …).

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds