Employers shouldn’t be afraid to hire women who might start a family

The ongoing reluctance of businesses to recruit women of childbearing age isn’t only outdated, it’s unnecessary, explains Helen Letchfield

Employers are still discriminating against women of childbearing age, with one in eight employers reluctant to hire women who might start a family soon.

Given that the average age for a woman to have their first child in the UK is 30, and more and more women are opting to start families later in life, this means employers are missing out on valuable opportunities to recruit talented and highly productive individuals for up to a decade before they even decide whether or not they want to become mothers.

For the most part, this reluctance is based on a number of assumptions that are becoming rapidly outdated, such as the assumption that the woman won’t want to return to work once they have a baby. In reality, the number of working mothers has soared by 1.2 million, up almost a third since 1996, meaning 74 per cent of women with dependent children are choosing to stay in work after becoming a parent.

The assumption that it will be women, and not men, who will become the primary caregiver is also becoming increasingly outdated. More than half of all men say childcare should be shared equally, with just under a third of the top 20 Sunday Times Best Big Companies to Work For now offering school-hour contracts to all employees.

What’s more, working parents don’t become any less committed than they were before they had children. Research shows that far from being ‘too invested’ in their children, individuals who identify highly with both their family and work invest twice as much in work, compared to people who only really identify with one or the other.

What may change is the desire of women, and men, to work more flexibly once they start a family, but they are not alone in this. More than two-thirds of all workers (68 per cent) would like to work more flexibly, and if a flexible working bill, currently being considered by parliament, goes ahead, flexible working will become the default for all jobs. This will put the onus on employers to explain why a job has to be fulfilled in a specific time and place, instead of the onus on employees to explain why they can work around outdated working patterns.

All of which means the reasons some employers use to justify avoiding hiring women who might start a family soon aren’t only outdated, but also unnecessary.

Instead, forward-looking employers recognise the enormous benefits that an inclusive workforce can deliver and are doing more to achieve this. UCL is proactively tackling the equality barriers facing women, in keeping with its belief that becoming a parent shouldn’t be an obstacle to career success. It believes its family-friendly policies and the maternity and career coaching provided to expectant mothers has helped it to become one of the top-ranked universities in the world.

Madiha Sajid, co-chair of the Parents and Carers Together network at UCL, explains: “Employees know they don’t have to conform to outdated working patterns or stop being a parent at work, as long as they’re delivering results and performing well. They know that if something comes up at home, they can talk to their manager about it and will be supported to balance their life outside of work with their job commitments.”

It’s this ability to allow parents to juggle the needs of family life with effective working and career progression that is so sorely needed to enable parents to thrive at work.

Employers that get this right not only have access to a greater pool of talent, but by always hiring the best person for the job and supporting them to become a parent, if and when that happens, they can create a much more loyal and productive workforce. Not to mention closing gender pay gaps by eliminating one of the key factors driving pay disparity.

Helen Letchfield is co-founder of Parent and Professional