Two fifths of female senior managers quizzed about plans to have children in interviews, survey finds

Experts warn employers asking these questions could face discrimination, victimisation and harassment claims under the Equality Act

Credit: ridvan_celik

Two fifths (40 per cent) of female senior managers have been asked whether or not they have children or plan to have them in the future during a recruitment process, a survey has found. 

The poll of more than 2,000 people by recruitment software company Applied revealed that only 18 per cent of women who are not in senior roles have been asked the same during the hiring process.

The research said this line of questioning stemmed from “career gap stigma”, which women were more likely to face because of childcare responsibilities. More than a third (38 per cent) of the women surveyed who had a career gap of more than six months cited childcare as the main reason, compared to 11 per cent of men. 

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Joanne Frew, partner and global head of employment and pensions at DWF, warned that asking these types of questions during the hiring process could leave employers open to claims of discrimination, victimisation and harassment under the Equality Act 2010. "Asking a woman if she has children, is pregnant or is planning to have children during the recruitment process leaves the employer open to the risk of discrimination claims,” said Frew.

Asking about career breaks related to childcare or family reasons was also potentially a breach of the act as it could be “indirect discrimination not to employ someone because they have taken a family-related career break”, she added.

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Frew said employers should focus on the role and whether the candidate would be able to carry out the job: “If the role would require extensive travel, for example, it is perfectly legitimate to ask the individual whether they would be able to travel.” 

However, employers must not ask whether the candidate has young children, which might “make travel more difficult or make assumptions about a person's situation”. 

Additionally, the results found that almost half (45 per cent) of women found their career break valuable, as they believed they had gained new or transferable skills, or enhanced their existing skillset. 

Kate Allen, EDI consultant and executive coach, said this line of questioning had been commonplace in job interviews for many years, and advised employers to rethink their strategy. “The easiest way to prevent this bias and reduce the stigma of having career gaps is to rethink the way we assess candidates on their capabilities for our roles,” she said.

It is important to focus on the required outputs for the role and how candidates’ skills and contributions will add value, because if employers measure this “it really doesn’t matter that [potential employees] took time out”, she added.

Overall, the Applied research found that a third (33 per cent) of respondents had a career break and that, of those people, more than half (53 per cent) would rather not tell prospective employers about their time away from work because of the “stigma attached”. 

Gillian Jones-Williams, managing director at Emerge Development Consultancy, said that while most recruiters had been trained to not ask these types of questions, comments about childcare can still crop up in interviews. She said managers and HR have a duty to remove bias. “Managers should all attend inclusive hiring training so that they understand how their bias might come into play, and to really focus on asking competency-based questions,” said Jones-Williams. 

“If this is coupled with HR truly challenging adverts and job descriptions that ask for a certain block of time in an industry or role and finally challenging decisions to ensure that the best person for the role has been selected, then progress can be made.”

Meanwhile, previous reporting found that career gaps were stifling women’s confidence at work. The poll, conducted by and Research Without Barriers last year found that 69 per cent of women claimed career breaks have made them less confident and diminished their self assurance. 

The CIPD has recently produced evidence-based guidance on inclusive recruitment practices, and recommends that organisations draw on this to “avoid placing stigma” on potential candidates. “Clear, objective, structured and transparent processes are fairer for candidates, supporting more equal outcomes and enabling employers to attract more diverse talent pools and to select the most suitable candidates for the role,” said Claire McCartney, senior policy adviser at the CIPD.

Anyone involved in the recruitment process should be clear on the questions “they should and should not be asking”, she stressed.