Submission of the
ACT Right to Life Association to the
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s
Inquiry into Pregnancy and Work
The ACT Right to Life Association works to protect human life from conception to natural death. One of the ways the Association works to minimise abortion, particularly in the ACT but also in the wider Australian community, is by lobbying the government in favour of measures to reduce the number of impediments women face when they are trying to carry a pregnancy to term. While abortion is a contentious issue in the community, the Association believes that there is a general consensus that women should not feel pressured to have an abortion.
This submission focuses on the question of whether women who prefer to continue working throughout their pregnancy, or who must continue working because of financial pressures, can effectively combine their working lives and their child-bearing lives without feeling that the two are incompatible. Those women who feel the two aspects of their lives are incompatible may consider aborting their unborn child.
Factors which can make a pregnancy difficult include employer hostility. In fact, in a study cited below, 70% of employed women who had sought abortions said they would have lost their job if they had allowed their pregnancy to continue.
Australian society is structured in such a way that, in many instances, women’s reproductive lives are not accommodated. A number of writers have pointed out the myth of choice, with regard to abortion. Without the support of family, colleagues or employer, a woman can feel that she has very little choice.(1)
An employer’s opinion becomes even more important in a climate of high unemployment and low job security. Under such pressure, a woman becomes trapped by the prevailing social system and an abortion can become “an act of social obligation” by a woman to her employer, to her partner or to her family.(2) Germaine Greer pointed out that
“the fictional right to ‘choice’ masked women’s real vulnerability in the matter of reproduction. It is typical of the contradictions that break women’s hearts that when they availed themselves of their fragile right to abortion they often, even usually, went with grief and humiliation to carry out a painful duty that was presented to them as a privilege. … Abortion is the last in a long line of non-choices …”.(3)
Publicity surrounding the Inquiry into Pregnancy and Work by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) has already highlighted a number of incidences of discrimination against women in the workplace on the grounds of their pregnancy.(4)
“… assist all parties to implement policies in order to eliminate and prevent discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy and potential pregnancy …” (HREOC Inquiry into Pregnancy and Work – Issues Paper, 1.13).
Pregnancy can have an impact on a woman’s ability to follow her normal routine at work from time to time. If women are to enjoy equality in the workplace, pregnancy should not be a basis for discrimination against women. Rather there should be accommodation within workplace arrangements which ensure that pregnancy and a working career are not incompatible.
The ACT Right to Life Association supports efforts within the community, especially through pregnancy support services, aimed at overcoming difficulties faced by some women who are pregnant. The Australian Federation of Pregnancy Support Services has a network of over twenty counselling agencies across Australia. However, the impact of pregnancy support services on pregnancy-related discrimination is of necessity limited since, while pregnancy support agencies can address some of the symptoms of discrimination, they are not able to address underlying attitudes and arrangements in the workplace which impede women who are pregnant continuing to work or to pursue a career.
NO EMPLOYER SHOULD ENCOURAGE A WOMAN TO SEEK AN ABORTION
The New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board’s inquiry into pregnancy-related discrimination found that “some employers still refuse to employ women of child bearing age and include questions on plans for children and contraceptives in application forms and interviews.”(5) The Board made no finding about abortion. However, given the acceptance of abortion in some parts of the community, perhaps as a result of attempts to “normalise” abortion as a relatively easy solution involving little consequence for the woman,(6) it is likely that a number of employers make implicit or explicit suggestions that their employee should seek an abortion, rather than disrupt the workplace. The Association believes that no employer should ever suggest that an employee consider seeking an abortion.
Even those who argue that there should be no restriction on women obtaining access to abortion admit that women who have an abortion under pressure, which may include pressure from an employer, often have psychological problems as a result.(7)
WORK PRESSURES MAY MOTIVATE AN ABORTION
There is evidence to suggest that some women consider abortion because either they, their employer, or a third party view their pregnancy as being incompatible with life in the paid workforce.
“… it is important that workplace and institutional structures do not inhibit the choice to have children or discriminate on the basis of pregnancy or potential pregnancy” (HREOC Inquiry into Pregnancy and Work – Issues Paper, 2.5).
In at least one study it was found that some women felt obliged to have an abortion in order to keep their job. The Queensland study asked women a series of questions about their abortion. “Women in employment in the 1980 sample were asked whether they would lose their job if the pregnancy continued; 70% said they would.”(8)
Subsequent studies have not directly asked this question. However, a number of later studies have identified “career” as one of the reasons women seek an abortion.
The New South Wales Family Planning Association carried out a survey of all women who sought abortions from eleven private abortion clinics in New South Wales over a six week period in 1992. Although the survey did not ask women whether they were having an abortion in order to keep their job, 27% of the women surveyed said that one of the reasons they were having their abortion was “I feel I should establish my career before having a child”.(9)
This indicates that these women viewed advancing their working life as being incompatible with pregnancy. The study did not go into the women’s reasons in more depth.
COUNSELLING AGENCIES MAY ALSO SUGGEST ABORTION TO AVOID WORK DISRUPTION
There is an indication in one study that some pregnancy counsellors encourage women’s fears that they will not be able to have both a child and a job. The Australian Catholic Social Welfare Commission’s Review of Pregnancy and Parent Support Services found that “there was a general perception by many of those interviewed [in pregnancy support agencies] that counsellors at other types of centres place pressure on younger women to have a termination of an unplanned pregnancy. Some of the arguments cited for this pressure included: the client’s age; interruption to education; reduced job opportunities; and economically poor future prospects.”(10)
The arguments cited by counsellors are of great concern because they indicate that some counsellors are affirming discriminatory rather than inclusive attitudes, by reinforcing clients’ fears that they cannot both be pregnant or have children and have a normal life in the workforce.
The issue of whether women are obliged, whether by subtle or more blatant pressures, to have an abortion in order to continue their life in the paid workforce, is one which deserves further study.
EMPLOYERS’ ATTITUDES TO PREGNANCY
“It is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee on the ground of the employee’s pregnancy or potential pregnancy” (HREOC Inquiry into Pregnancy and Work – Issues Paper, 4.5).
The view that pregnancy is incompatible with life in the paid workforce may be one influenced by a traditional view, pointed out by Albury(11), of the separation of public and private life. This view sees women confined to private or family life, while men participate in public life. Those women who try to participate in public life are treated with suspicion, even more so when they try to bring their private life pregnancy into the public life workplace. This view is supported by the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board’s finding that discrimination “… occurs in all areas of employment, but is worse in areas where women have not traditionally worked and in small business.”(12)
The director of the Women’s Working Centre in Sydney noted that “they’ll [employers] be tolerant with leave like study, army reserve or sporting leave, but when it comes to pregnancy they can be dreadfully mean … some [employers] have a paternalistic feudal attitude to women, berating them for getting pregnant …”.(13)
The story of Body Shop International is perhaps an obvious contrast to this negative image of employers. Body Shop founder, Anita Roddick writes that
“staff without children have different needs than those with children. You are not only dealing with your employees but also their families. Your employee policy can embrace your employees’ lifestyles … Your job [as manager] is to make the money-maker’s job as productive as possible. You remove obstacles, you provide a sounding board, you intervene on their behalf. The manager should be in the service of his or her employees.”(14)
This is the sort of model of an employer, and of good business practice, that should be promoted to Australian employers.
Flexibility can also be introduced into the workplace by government to assist women to successfully combine their workforce life and their family life so that both roles are viewed by society as legitimate. For example Australia, along with the United States, New Zealand and a number of third world countries, has no compulsory period of paid maternity leave in the private sector, although it has the most generous length of time allowed, at 52 weeks.(15)
The NSW Inquiry into Pregnancy Related Discrimination notes that “the vast majority of employed women in Australia are not entitled to any type of paid maternity leave; they and their families bear the loss of income and the increased financial costs of maternity.”(16) A length of compulsory paid maternity leave would help alleviate some of the financial and work pressures on women who are pregnant. However, the Inquiry documents a long list of ways in which women lose from being pregnant, including losing seniority and other work benefits while being on maternity leave.
OTHER ISSUES TO CONSIDER
“The 1996 Australian Census shows that while the number of women in the workforce is rising, the number of children born per woman is falling” (HREOC Inquiry into Pregnancy and Work – Issues Paper, 2.3).
There is evidence given in the Issues Paper that, while more and more women are in the paid workforce, fewer children are being born per woman. These figures deserve further study as their relationship is uncertain. While they may indicate that the workplace does not accommodate child-bearing, they may also indicate broader social changes.
There have been few studies of the effects of pregnancy on women’s situation in employment in Australia. The main study available is the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board’s report on pregnancy-related discrimination, called Why don’t you ever see a pregnant waitress?, published in 1993.(17)
Other studies tend to have been focused on those adolescent women more likely to call on government welfare payments, rather than investigating more mature women in full employment. Therefore, they looked at women who were unemployed and who became pregnant, rather than women who were employed and became pregnant.(18)
It seems to be generally agreed, though, that “… in Australia … adolescent mothers are likely to experience poverty, housing difficulties, social isolation and limited education and employment opportunities.”(19) The direct question of whether these young women experienced difficulties gaining or maintaining employment while pregnant does not appear to have been addressed, though finding employment may address many of the difficulties these young women experience.
There is evidence of a wide variety of pressures in today’s society which discourage women who are pregnant from either continuing their pregnancy or maintaining their role in the workplace. The following are the Association’s recommendations:
1. That the Commission should use a number of avenues to investigate pregnancy-related discrimination in the workplace, including discrimination leading to women seeking abortions.
Given the NSW Anti-Discrimination Commission’s finding that in many cases women do not even report discrimination, often because of their fear of being victimised or of the stress involved,(20) it would be appropriate for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission to pursue a number of avenues in addition to seeking submissions to this Inquiry into Pregnancy and Work to fully investigate women’s experience in the area. This might include commissioning a telephone survey.
A survey would have the advantage of reaching women who are not aware of this Inquiry, who do not have time because of work and family commitments to make a submission, who are afraid to make a submission or who feel that a submission is beyond their capability. It is the last two groups of women which are most likely to be marginalised and to experience discrimination.
One issue which the ACT Right to Life Association believes requires further investigation, perhaps as part of a survey, is whether women are seeking abortions as a result of direct or indirect discrimination in the workplace. As stated earlier, while abortion is a contentious issue in the community, the Association believes that there would be a general consensus in the community that women should not feel pressured to have an abortion.
2. That information on pregnancy-related discrimination be provided by the Commission to medical practitioners and counsellors who are involved in pregnancy counselling.
It is apparent from the literature, and from anecdotal evidence, that some counsellors and medical practitioners involved in pregnancy counselling may be unwittingly involved in pregnancy discrimination by affirming or assisting women who are the subject of pregnancy-related discrimination to seek an abortion. In order to counter this, it is suggested that the Commission send appropriate information to counsellors and medical practitioners so that they may assist women to resist pressure to abort.
3. That a publicity campaign be initiated by the Commission to provide positive images of women who are pregnant in the workplace.
Given the apparent large number of employers who are failing in their responsibility to allow women the flexibility to continue to work while they are pregnant, it may be appropriate for the Commission to organise a television publicity campaign, displaying favourable images of women who are pregnant in the workplace, in order to change the attitudes of employers and colleagues in the workplace.
4. That management theories and practices that are inclusive of women who are pregnant and in the workforce be promoted by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.
In order for pregnancy-related discrimination in the workplace to cease, both employers and employees must be convinced that women who are pregnant are not a liability. This can be achieved by publicising business practices such as those used by Body Shop International, which demonstrate how employers can treat employees as people, and yet still have a productive and successful organisation.
1. O’Donovan, M (1994), The Rhetoric of Choice Creates Victims. In O’Donovan, M and Stuparich, J, The Abortion Debate: Pro-Life Essays. ACT Right to Life Association, Canberra. Page 4.
2. Tankard Reist, M (1997), An (un)informed choice. The Canberra Times, 24 May.
3. Greer, G (1992), The Feminine Mistake. The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 May.
4. For example:
(a) McKay, P (1998), Keeping Mum. The Age, 8 July;
(b) Jackson, S (1998), Pregnant working women targeted. The Australian, 14 October. Page 5;
(c) Inquiry ordered into pregnancy bias. The Courier Mail, 27 August 1998,
5. New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board (1993), Why don’t you ever see a pregnant waitress? Summary Report of the Findings of the Inquiry into Pregnancy Related Discrimination. NSW Anti-Discrimination Board, Sydney. Page 6.
6. National Health and Medical Research Council (1995), Services for the Termination of Pregnancy in Australia: A Review. NHMRC, Canberra. O’Donovan, M (1994), op.cit.. Pages 1-8.
7. Ryan, L, Ripper, M and Buttfield, B (1994), We Women Decide: Women’s Experience of Seeking Abortion in Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania 1985-1992. Women’s Studies Unit, Faculty of Social Sciences, Flinders University. November.
Rolls, M (1986), A survey of women’s abortion experiences. In Kerby-Eaton, E and Davies, J (eds), Women’s Health in a Changing Society, Volume 3, Second National Women’s Health Conference. Pages 98-99.
8. Bourne, AS and Kerr, JD (1982), The Characteristics of Two Samples of Women Seeking Abortion in Queensland, Australian Journal of Social Sciences, Vol. 17(3), page 213.
9. Adelson, P, Frommer, M, and Weisberg, E (1995), A survey of women seeking termination of pregnancy in New South Wales. The Medical Journal of Australia, Vol. 163(8), page 421
10. Australian Catholic Social Welfare Commission (1991), Review of Pregnancy and Parent Support Services. Australian Catholic Social Welfare Commission, Canberra.. November. Pages 76-77.
11. Albury, R (1984), ‘Law Reform and Human Reproduction’: Implications for Women. In Simms, M, Australian Women and the Political System. Longman Cheshire, Melbourne. Pages 177-178.
12. New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board (1993), op.cit.. Page 6.
13. Loane, S (1998), Mother Load. The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 March,
14. Roddick in Ray, M and Renesch, J (1994), The New Entrepreneurs: Business Visionaries for the 21st Century. The NewLeaders Press.
15. International Labour Office (1997), Maternity Protection at Work. International Labour Office, Geneva. Pages 36-37;
Loane, S (1998), Mother Load. The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 March, page 11.
16. New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board (1993), op.cit.. Page 8.
17. New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board (1993), op.cit..
18. For example:
Montague, M (1991), Labour Force or Labour Ward: Is this a choice young women are making? Brotherhood of St Laurence, Melbourne;
Condon, J (1992), Pregnancy, abortion, adoption and parenting. In Kosky, R et al (eds), Breaking Out: Challenges in Adolescent Mental Health in Australia. Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.
19. Healy, K (1996), Valuing young families: child protection and family support strategies with adolescent mothers. Children Australia, vol. 21(2), page 24.
20. New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board (1993), op.cit.. Pages 7, 9.