CLODAGH FINN: If men had babies: some (pregnant) pause for thought

A beauty therapist dismissed for being pregnant received a paltry €5,179 in compensation this week. That is no deterrent, and one wonders if employers would be more accommodating if men gave birth, writes Clodagh Finn.

Australian Greens party senator, Larissa Waters, breastfeeding her baby, Alia Joy, in parliament. Pic: Mick Tsikas/AAP Image/AP

WOULD our society be arranged differently if men had babies?

If they did, breastfeeding in parliament might be considered the norm, rather than an international news story, as it was a couple of months ago, when an Australian senator made history by becoming the first politician to speak in the senate chamber while breastfeeding.

Made history! How staggering is that, in a world where babies are born and breastfed every day?

You could argue, as many have done, that parliament is no place for that sort of thing, but if men were the ones having the babies, those arguments might be less vehement and less tolerated. Every parliament — and not just the Australian one — might introduce rules to allow new parents to briefly care for their newborns in the chamber.

What about the squawking and squealing? Well, what about the braying and whinnying that goes on there now? If men gave birth, the barrier between work and home might begin to look a little more porous. We might realise that the elusive thing we call work/life balance is a myth and stop beating ourselves up for never achieving it. The social construct that has built a concrete wall between home and work might start to come tumbling down, and we might stop trying to carve ourselves into office machines by day and domestic gods by night.

Everyone could breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that we could put on our business suits without casting off the mammy or daddy hat. What a comfort that might be for those who rush to drop off their charges at crèche and then keep an anxious eye on the clock as pick-up approaches.

That pressure has turned some women into alpha mums, who insist that child-bearing has made them super-efficient at work. That kind of talk serves neither mums nor non-mums, although anybody with a shred of empathy can understand why it is so.

Consider this week’s compensation payout to a beauty therapist. She was told that her pregnancy was “her own problem”. Some €4,000 of the €5,179 awarded by the Workplace Relations Commission related to the discrimination of being dismissed while pregnant. Employment law expert and solicitor Richard Grogan said the award was extremely low and would not, “in a month of Sundays”, act as a deterrent to employers who sacked pregnant employees.

He said pregnancy-related dismissals were so common that employees were terrified of telling their bosses they were pregnant. That might sound like scaremongering or exaggeration, but the figures bear it out, not just here, but also in the UK and the US.

Recent studies in the UK show that pregnant women are in danger of being dismissed, made redundant, or mistreated. The last time a comprehensive study was conducted here was in 2011, when the ‘Pregnancy at Work’ national survey, conducted by the HSE Crisis Pregnancy Programme and the then Equality Authority, found that 71% of women said their employer was supportive of their pregnancy.

If we’re talking about exam results or support for a political party, that sounds like an amazing result, but what about the three in 10 women who reported unfair treatment, including the 5% of women who were dismissed for being pregnant?

Others reported loss of salary or bonuses, unsuitable workloads or hours, lack of promotion opportunities, and sarcastic remarks. That report is six years old. It’s time for a new one, so that we can see what is happening in the Irish workplace. We might also start to reimagine how a workplace would look if its male boss could get pregnant. I suspect employees would no longer be afraid to announce their pregnancies. In fact, expecting a baby might even be considered a positive, something to be celebrated, rather than a reason to lose your job.

If a male boss was told his pregnancy was his own problem, it would be a scandal. There might even be an outcry among the general population who, quite rightly, would take to the streets in large numbers to point out that the future of our world was at stake. I love it when women are asked to say what they think would happen if men could get pregnant. They say everything from “the pill would have been invented by the Ancient Greeks” to “our species would be extinct” to “special leave would be granted for morning sickness”.

The question always allows for an amusing venture into the world of make-believe, but it nearly always becomes deadly serious, too.

If men had babies, women say, there would be better maternity/paternity leave; breastfeeding would not be so controversial; the workplace would be more flexible; giving birth might be venerated; medical staff would listen more to their patients; society might start to recognise that you can be a parent and a valuable member of staff.

That list could go on and on, and maybe it’s time to give it a proper airing.

Much has been said about the lack of women in Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s new cabinet. Whatever way you twist the figures, just 11 of the 50 elected TDs in Fine Gael are women.

Maybe one of them might consider the question of facilitating mothers of newborns in the Dail chamber.

It’s not as implausible as you think. Earlier this week, Social Democrat councillor Jennifer Whitmore, a mother of four, said Wicklow County Council had been very supportive when she was a new mother. She was able to feed her baby at meetings, while discussing the pros and cons of local property tax.

But women shouldn’t have to depend on the goodwill of colleagues to be able to juggle motherhood and work.

If only we could inhabit the kind of world that would evolve if men had to juggle fatherhood and work.



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