Maternal profiling

Think employers shouldn't be able to ask prospective employees about their marital or familial status? Check your state's employment laws.

Published December 21, 2006 8:30PM (EST)

So you're sitting in a job interview and your prospective boss fixes you with an earnest gaze and asks you if you're married. Later, the subject of your personal life comes up again. Do you have children, and, if not, are you planning on starting a family anytime soon? If you're like me, at this point you'd be taking mental notes for a lawsuit should you fail to get the job for some mysterious reason.

But if you think this seems like one of those discriminatory no-brainers, you'd better check your state's employment laws first. Thanks to a piece in Women's eNews, we learned that only 22 states and Puerto Rico prohibit employers from inquiring about applicants' marital status. That means in 28 states, prospective bosses can question women about their family plans and use that information in their hiring decisions.

The eNews story profiles Kiki Peppard, a single mother from Pennsylvania who learned the hard way about maternal profiling when she found herself repeatedly denied jobs after being asked about her single-mother status. The young woman then began lobbying her state to change its laws -- a battle she has been waging for 12 unsuccessful years. Last month, her bill died once again when it failed to reach the state House floor for a vote.

As someone who has been a part of several hiring processes, I can vouch that this is just the sort of law that absolutely needs to be on the books to protect women. Why? Because otherwise it's just too damned tempting. In a world where it's mostly mothers who do the emergency care of children, and where it's relatively common for women to quit their jobs after giving birth, it's only rational for employers to worry about the commitment or reliability that a pregnant woman or mother of young children will bring to her job.

Is it discriminatory? You betcha. At this point there aren't enough Mr. Moms out there to spur employers to quiz men on their child-rearing plans, so the practice of pressing women for personal details is a real sign of bias in action. But it's also one of those areas where against all my feminist principles, I actually sympathize with employers. Why? Because I've been one of those employees whose happy workaholism waned as the responsibilities of parenting took over. It wasn't that I deserved never to have been hired, but there was a point at which my change in priorities and my job couldn't coexist happily. This surely isn't true of all mothers, but it's an understandable employer concern.

In many larger companies and organizations, it makes sense for workplaces to accommodate all parenting practices, but in smaller operations, it's a difficult needle to thread. In the end, although I applaud Peppard's campaign, anti-discrimination laws around hiring practices won't really curb maternal profiling until employers get some help from the government (in the form of paid parental leave, à la Sweden, or affordable childcare) in helping raise the children in our society. Otherwise, no matter what employers are allowed to ask, the discrimination against mothers will persist.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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