Nearly 1 in 5 HR decision-makers reluctant to hire women who might start families, study shows

'You cannot fire the only pregnant person in your company and call it a layoff'

Nearly 1 in 5 HR decision-makers reluctant to hire women who might start families, study shows

Nearly one in five HR decision-makers admit they have been reluctant to hire women they thought might go on to start families.

Only 13% of HR professionals said the same for a man, according to a survey of personnel managers in England and Wales for the charity Young Women’s Trust.

However, these findings are not unique to the UK. One-third of Canadian women reported that they were discriminated against due to becoming, or being, a mother in the workplace, according to a 2021 Moms at Work maternity leave experience report.

Under The Canadian Human Rights Act (the Act), refusing to hire or promote, harassing, differentiating treatment in employment, terminating employment, instituting or following policies or practices, and failing to provide reasonable accommodation are prohibited if they result in discrimination related to pregnancy.

Discrimination against pregnant women

Despite the illegality of these actions when it comes to pregnant employees, there is an inherent, conscious bias when it comes to the employment of both pregnant women and women of childbearing age, according to Allison Venditti, HR expert and founder of Moms at Work.

“I think it’s doing [women] a great disservice to say that people are somehow not aware that they're biased, and I'll even go one step beyond that: its beyond bias – it's discrimination,” she said.

Throughout her years as an HR professional, Venditti has witnessed firsthand employers asking potential new hires questions like ‘Do you have children?’, ‘Are you planning on having more children?’ and ‘How are you going to handle this job given that you have children?’.

In cases where these employers have concerns, she has also seen employers actively choose to not hire women of “child birthing age.”

Replacing pregnant women at work

Concerns about hiring women who may go on to have children in the near or far future can come from the disruption associated with hiring a replacement employee while a new mother goes on maternity leave. This goes hand in hand with the assumption that women will be so enamoured with their new baby that they'll want to be stay at home and not return to work following their scheduled leave, Venditti said.

“It's a pain to replace someone for a year; no matter how you slice it, it's a pain, but you have to pick what type of company you’re going to be,” she said.

Of all mothers who took a leave from their paid job after childbirth or adoption and returned to work or intended to do so within 18 months after the beginning of their leave, 91% had returned or planned to return to the same employer in 2019, and 9% returned or planned to return to a different employer, according to a November report from Statistics Canada.

A second Statistics Canada study showed that the percentage of women who returned or intended to return to work following parental leave in 2019 was 88%. This number increased from 82% for the 2009 cohort.

Preventing barriers to pregnancy-based discrimination

In upholding the obligations outlined by The Canadian Human Rights Act, Venditti believes that HR professionals should ensure they are protecting their employees and put up barriers to prevent pregnancy-based discrimination.

These barriers include training managers around not asking family status questions and understanding accommodations for working with pregnant women to reduce pregnancy-related bias and discrimination.

“You cannot fire the only pregnant person in your company and call it a layoff,” she said.

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