a working woman is not just a working uterus on leave
A friend of mine recently relayed to me a rather distasteful incident that happened to her while she was at her place of employment, where a colleague had brought in their infant child for a few hours.
Helping her workmate out, my friend held the child for a while, and was having a perfectly agreeable time. After the kid left, she checked her email only to be confronted by a rather nauseating, sexist message from a male colleague who was nearby – ‘it’ll be your turn next’, followed by some verbal comments about how she was obviously ‘clucky’ and an implication that the clock was ticking.
Needless to say, my friend was quite annoyed, and when she was telling me about it, she mentioned that what annoyed her the most was not just the assumption that she would eventually want children when she was fairly certain she would not, but that for some reason, her personal choices about her own lifestyle and body were apparently deemed suitable topics for workplace jokes and casual discussion.
There was nothing tongue in cheek about being relegated to the domestic sphere, at least mentally, every time she looked at or played with or spoke to a child.
Now, I’ve written about this before, and I obviously have a bit of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to this topic, not least of all because I’m Indian and my parents have been hounding me about getting married and having children pretty much since I started menstruating.
But I do think it’s interesting how a woman’s attitude towards having children, or choices in regards to procreation are considered to be public property in a way. It would be highly unprofessional for a colleague to joke about someone’s sexuality, or race, or choices when it comes to religion, culture or even diet, but an offhand comment about how a female staff member must be ‘clucky’, or will be ‘popping one out’ soon enough is considered totally innocuous.
I would say that, in fact, comments like these are far more dangerous and loaded with meaning than we necessarily assume. In a climate where women are more and more pressured to both have children and maintain some semblance of a working life, subtle discrimination against pregnant women, or women who are likely to become pregnant is rife in hiring circles.
I remember when my sister first got married, and started looking for jobs. Almost everyone she was interviewed by slipped in a question about whether or not, now that she was married, she was looking to start a family soon. She felt pressured to say no, because the obvious implication was that women looking to start families would be a burden to employ.
Even with the new paid maternity leave arrangements, it’s a hassle for employers to hire new staff, train them, and then rehire their new working-mother employee who will doubtlessly need more leave, different hours and have more home commitments than before.
Putting aside the pure irritation associated with having veritable strangers assuming that they know more about your nature and biology than you yourself know (if I hear one more comment about a ‘ticking clock’ or how ‘all women change their minds eventually’, then I might just rip my uterus out myself), the association between all women and motherhood has strong implications for women in the workforce.
It becomes a gender-wide attitude and assumption that women have an impermanent role in workplaces, that there is a ‘real’ task that takes place in homes and hospitals, day care centres and mothers’ groups that is the true job of a woman.
The notion of chortling about a man eventually wanting children and ‘getting clucky’ is fairly ludicrous – men want careers, raises, promotions, right? It’s women who are taken in by a maternal tug each time they see a newborn, eh?
For those women who do want to have children, I say good for you – it’s a personal decision that works for some, and not for others. I’m not discounting the wonderful role mothers play in society, and I’m certainly not vilifying children (alright, I admit, I’m not a ‘kid person’, but I have nothing against the little tykes), but I think that the casual oversight of women who don’t want to have kids, or who aren’t mothers is troubling to say the least.
My friend’s colleague was making an innocuous comment, and one that I doubt he realised was offensive until after he had already offended my friend. But each innocuous comment like that is pregnant (pun intended) with ulterior meanings that can have wider implications for women more generally.
Working uterus or no working uterus, a working woman is just that – and her body is not public property.