Maternity discrimination is rather unheard of in Hong Kong, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Most people don’t think about it because they figure there are laws in place to stop any prejudices, but the reality is very different.
The Hong Kong Equal Opportunities Commission has received 1,435 complaints under the Sexual Discrimination Ordinance during the past six years. Among them, 602 women – more than 40 per cent of the petitioners – complained of pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. However, these figures can not reflect the full extent of the situation, as there are undoubtedly many more women who are afraid of speaking out.
Pregnancy discrimination is deeply entrenched in our society, and shows up in different ways. The consequences can have a lasting detrimental impact on a woman’s self esteem – and her career. Doing some research, I found out that pregnancy discrimination often begins long before a woman’s actual pregnancy, in ways that are simply outrageous.
In some occasions, the first experience of maternity discrimination is at the job interview, a time at which most candidates have not even thought of having a baby and starting a family. Women report of interviews where they were asked whether they are planning to get pregnant in the near future, as this is considered a risk by the prospective employers.
Why is getting pregnant a “risk”? Companies say that they can not afford a maternity leave or do not want to waste money and time on training female employees who will leave the company to have a baby and be a housewife in the future. The mere idea of this question suggests that there is an ingrained idea that women’s only functions are to give birth and be a homemaker. This is a backward view and it doesn’t allow women to develop their career potential.
Even if women successfully secure a job, they still faced bluntly-expressed doubts regarding their status as a “baby risk” simply because of their gender and age. Some women reported that their positions in companies have never been made permanent because of the chance that they might take maternity leave. Some women are deprived of basic employee rights that their male counterparts are able to enjoy.
When they did become pregnant, women were being taken less seriously, discriminated against, and even subjected to sexual harassment. Despite there being laws on marital rights, there is often a sense of resentment against women for getting pregnant and taking a maternity leave, with unkind suggestions that they are becoming a financial burden to their companies, that they are taking advantage of a paid holiday, or that they are just being lazy. These hurtful remarks not only undermine a woman’s position within the workplace, they also make them feel less supported, distressed and vulnerable.
When women return to work after maternity leave, their feelings of excitement and relief are quickly extinguished by co-workers and superiors (often males) who make them feel unwelcome and insecure. There are repeated suggestions that having a child and being a mother could have a negative impact on a woman’s mental and emotional state, and her ability to concentrate on and commit to her job. Thus, some women are forced to resign, being passed up for promotions, or sidelined to less senior positions due to their ”reduced mental capacity”.
Unsupported assumptions, unreasonable stereotypes and ungrounded expectations of male bosses and colleagues make women’s lives in the workplace extremely difficult and frustrating. To find a solution, we need to first acknowledge that there is a problem in the first place. Gender discrimination takes place in different forms, and we should all be aware of it and put a stop to it.