Under the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, it is illegal for employers to discriminate against a candidate on the grounds she is pregnant, or intending to become pregnant. According to Jenny McLeish at the Maternity Alliance, which works to improve the rights and services for pregnant women and new parents, women are under no legal obligation to disclose the fact they are pregnant in an interview and it is illegal for a company to ask.
Jennifer Johns, 34, was 10 weeks pregnant and decided not to mention it when she went for the post of artistic administrator of Music At Oxford, an independent classical concert promoter. "I hadn't even told my family. It was early days so I didn't feel I was deceiving anyone. The interviewer didn't ask and I didn't say anything." When she was offered the job two weeks later, she felt obliged to tell them: "I had three months notice to work from my previous job, so I would only be in the new job for two months before going on maternity leave, which was not long enough to guarantee my job back after the baby. The interviewer wasn't the least bit fazed. I later found out she was a mother of four herself."
One employer, who wishes to remain anonymous, believes there is a huge difference between recruiting pregnant women and mothers, even though one inevitably leads to the other: "There's less risk taking on a woman who's already had her baby because I'd feel more confident about her returning to work." This may be a common fear among employers but these days it is no longer a reality. A briefing on Work and Parenting by the Equal Opportunities Commission shows that in 1996, 67 per cent of women who had worked during pregnancy returned to work within 11 months, a dramatic increase over 1988, when only 45 per cent of women returned within nine months.
Reva Braham, 37, currently on maternity leave until May, will not be returning to her original job. The possibility of promotion gave Reva the incentive to apply for the post of International Human Resources Manager at Xerox Ltd, when she was six months pregnant with her second child Ilana, now two months old. "When I went for the interview I felt being pregnant might count against me, but I believed I was the right person for the job. In the back of my mind was the question: 'would they be willing to cope while I was on maternity leave?' In the end I asked them outright and they told me the rest of the team would cover for me and that interesting projects could be delayed until I returned."
There is a popular preconception that taking on a pregnant woman in a new job is a financial burden. But in fact these women are the least trouble because the law states that an employer does not have to pay the Statutory Maternity Pay (90 per cent of current salary for six weeks, then pounds 55.70 for 12 weeks) to a woman who has been with the company for less than two years. She is entitled to 14 weeks maternity leave, but an employer hiring a candidate who has to work out a long period of notice, or relocate, is faced with a similar problem.
Certainly pregnancy can be inconvenient, for employer and employee alike. But as Talie Wood, former managing director of a publishing consultancy group, points out: "It's not only pregnant women who need time off work. I took on a young man who was very bright but he had terrible problems at home. Both his in-laws died suddenly, his wife was pregnant and then they had a baby. I let him take the time off, but within that first year, he was really only 50 per cent effective."
Lisa Armstrong, 35, who was offered the post of fashion features director at Vogue when she was six months pregnant, believes compromise is the key: "I offered to work part-time, but they suggested full-time which I preferred. I slightly lost out financially in the first year, but it was worth it because it fitted in better with my life as a working mother."
Some employers request a medical examination before a job offer is made. Though no one will admit it, Esther Kaposi believes a number of employers may be physically put off by pregnancy: "Someone who looks the right shape is more likely to get the job than someone who is too fat or too thin. And despite the fact most women have children, pregnancy still looks odd, particularly in a working environment."
Other companies blatantly ignore the law. At one interview, Talie Wood was amazed to find a written questionnaire which asked about her family plans: "I was so annoyed I wrote 'We might be getting together for Christmas, but I'm not sure yet.' Needless to say I did not get the job."
If a woman feels she has been discriminated against, she can resort to legal action. Sabine (not her real name) was offered a job as a personal assistant, but there was a long gap between the interview and when the job started, during which time she became pregnant. But when she tried to confirm her start date and mentioned she was pregnant, the company stalled and withdrew the original offer. She took them to an industrial tribunal and won compensation.
But there is no legal aid for such cases, so pursuing a claim through the courts can become an expensive and stressful business, according to Caroline Underhill, a barrister at Avon and Bristol Law Centre who specialises in employment law: "It is often difficult for a woman to prove she has been turned down for a job specifically because she is pregnant and not for other reasons, which is what an employer might argue."
As a preliminary step, Caroline recommends investigating the case by serving a questionnaire under the Sex Discrimination Act: "Ask what the company's selection procedure was, who got the job, what was their expertise and background. If these questions are not answered substantially, the tribunal may infer there has been some discrimination."
But there are signs that employers are shrugging off their prejudices by improving their interviewing techniques. Dr Karen Janman, an occupational psychologist at Saville and Holdsworth, helps organisations make decisions about selecting people into jobs. She explains: "An untrained interviewer may ask an individual something about his circumstances and interpret that differently according to whether the candidate is male or female (Will you be able to work late hours and occasionally at weekends?). We encourage companies to ask directly about the individual's abilities to meet the requirements of the job, rather than to infer potential difficulties from their situation."
"Being pregnant is unpredictable, but people who run businesses think about risk all the time," says Esther Kaposi.
l The Maternity Alliance is at 45 Beech Street, London EC2P 2LX.Reuse content