Protecting working mothers

Eichner is on a mission to ensure that all women, especially pregnant ones, are aware of their rights.

By
March 23, 2009 20:30
Protecting working mothers

SEXY pregnant mama 248.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski)

 
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Nirit Toshav-Eichner will never forget the reaction of her female boss when she told her that she was pregnant with her first child. "Her whole demeanor changed," remembers the 36-year-old of the unpleasant experience nine years ago. "She looked at me with a very cold face and started suggesting that perhaps I should hold off from working on certain projects. "She said to me, 'When I was your age, I just stayed home and raised the children. How can you think about continuing your doctorate, raising children and working in a serious professional capacity?' I was in complete shock because up until that point I'd been given a lot of compliments on my work and she'd even sent me on several training programs. Her whole attitude toward me changed so suddenly." After leaving her boss's office, Toshav-Eichner, today a life coach and organizational consultant, as well as a doctoral student and government researcher into women and work trends, says: "I had this urge to write everything down - all my feelings and emotions - it was almost like a form of therapy. I was very angry and writing helped me to put everything in perspective. "Later I realized that her reaction was based only on the fact that she could not bear to see a younger woman who was ready and willing to work and prepared to raise children at the same time." While the experience was certainly demoralizing, it was also the impetus that propelled Toshav-Eichner to find a way to prevent such discrimination against all women in the workplace. What right, she says, does a person have to judge whether someone else is capable of being a mother and a career professional at the same time? "Life should always be about choices and a woman should always have the opportunity to choose what is good for her," continues Toshav-Eichner, who is writing her thesis at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on the country's 55-year-old Women's Law and its implementation. "If a woman wants to be a mother and work at the same time, that's great; if she wants to just be a mother, that's great too; and if a woman just wants to just work, then that is also fine. The key is to allow people the choice." Following the birth of her first child, Toshav-Eichner did not return to her original place of employment but was hired by the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry as an employment investigator. She still works there. She says that her new boss is much more supportive and gives her the freedom to research whatever work issues she feels are important. Her most recent study, published by the Hebrew University in time for International Women's Day earlier this month, points to the sharp increase in the number of pregnant women being fired because of the economic recession. Based on interviews with pregnant women who had been fired and government data, her research indicates that more than 50 percent of employers who have fired their pregnant staff over the past few months did not follow the legal channels of applying for dismissal via the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry. "They should really be considered criminals under the law," she says. "Pregnant women are the weakest link; they are the exact opposite of an ideal employee and because she will not be around for much longer, it's much easier for an employer to justify letting her go." WHILE TOSHAV-Eichner has produced some groundbreaking insights into how the law plays out in practice, it is her work with individuals, she says, that gives her the "passion and motivation" to keep on fighting gender inequality in the workplace. "I look at it like this, the research and studying are so that I know where I come from and where I have to go; the organization consultancy is to find out what is going on in the business field so I can advise people how to navigate through it; and the personal coaching is where I can effectively make changes," she says. "As a consultant, my work is to give people the tools to deal with the new work order. The world has changed so much and it's very important for all women to learn to deal with those changes. "I have many types of women coming to me for advice. Some are well-educated and intelligent but [after having children] they might have decided not to go back to work. When, eventually, they do want to return to work, they discover that the scene has changed significantly. There is new technology or she is now overqualified for the job. It's a horrible situation, but I know that eventually she will find a job. "What upsets me more is when I meet women who did not have the chance to become educated and they are in a much weaker position. I've met so many women who do not know how to use a computer even just to write their resumé. Either they did not finish their studies or they had children at a younger age, and it's so hard for them to break back in." "I believe that my real job is as an ambassador sent to help women get back into the workforce and stay there." Surely the fact that Israel has had a law protecting women since 1954 means that we are ahead of other countries when it comes to gender equality in the workplace? Until recently there was this belief that there was gender equality here during the early years of the state, but now we know that it was really just a myth. What happened in reality was that the women who worked alongside the men to build up the kibbutzim, for example, would usually take on the roles stereotypically for women. They looked after the children or did the laundry and the men did not exactly welcome them in the fields. I call it the paternalistic period, even though there was a strong Histadrut and work ethic, everything was done in a very patronizing way. Women were called on to work by the state not because it wanted to encourage equality between the sexes but because it needed the manpower and wanted to improve the economic situation of those in the transit camps. Did the 1954 law actually protect women from discrimination in the workplace? Even though the Women's Law was passed in the early 1950s and it was supposed to protect women in general and particularly protect pregnant women from losing their jobs, the law was not effective because it did not allow any room for discussions or labor tribunals. [The law says that if an employer wants to fire a pregnant woman, an application must be made to the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor and the act must not be based on the fact that she is pregnant.] Employers could apply to the ministry, but the woman was not allowed to defend herself in any way. She could not argue her merits as an employee or prove that she was really being fired because she was pregnant. But Israel was one of the first modern states to have a female prime minister. Surely that set a positive example of how effective women can be in the workplace? During my research, I was surprised at how much the behavior surrounding the Women's Law mirrored what was really going on in society. From the outside it appeared that Israel had very advanced gender equality back then, but when you look closer you realize it was an illusion. Most women in the Knesset, up until end of the 1970s, did not take up women's causes but preferred to choose their agenda based on their party's goals. Golda Meir was often quoted as saying that if she'd really listened to her female intuition, she would have approached the Yom Kippur War quite differently. Israel would have been prepared much earlier, but she stopped her inner female voice and held back from speaking out. It is a shame that it happened then and it still happens today. Take, for example, Tzipi Livni, who suddenly remembered at the end of her election campaign that she was a woman and started talking about women's issues. What happened at the end of the 1970s that helped improve women's status in the workplace? At end of the 1970s, the winds of liberalism started to arrive from the West and there were other changes taking place in society too. Women started to find their voices through organizations such as Na'amat and WIZO, which up until that point had been arms of the government aimed at providing women with practical tools to join the workforce, such as day care facilities. Plus, the Equality of Opportunities in Labor Law that was passed in 1988 helped advance the issue of equality for all employees, especially women. [It was aimed at preventing discrimination based on sex, marital status or on the basis of their being parents.] Also at that time there was a recession and just like during other times of economic crisis pregnant women began being fired from their jobs and that pushed the women's groups to become more organized and start lobbying the Knesset, providing legal advice to women and helping them to protect their rights. Aside from legislation protecting women in the workplace, how can the general attitude to mothers at work be changed? Firstly, there should be no discussion of a woman's family status in the workplace. Many times, when I am working with a company, I see the human resources department receiving two CVs, one from a man and another from a woman. Even though the woman might have more suitable experience, because there is a danger she might get pregnant or has young children, they put her CV to the side. I try, however, to persuade them to give her a chance. So what if she gets pregnant? It's not the end of the world. It's only for a limited time period and then she'll be back. Men go off to reserve army duty every year, so what is the difference? In addition, companies today can be much more flexible and give people the tools to work from home, what I call the "new work order." What is this new work order and how will it change people's attitudes? It started at the end of the 1990s, although we saw the seeds of change in the early '90s. It's connected to the growth of technology, the Internet and video conferencing, which changed the way people work and allowed for companies to have more flexible work schedules or employees working from home. It also means that [working mothers] can contribute more time to work and therefore be on more equal footing to the men. However even though there are obvious positive points, there are also some negative elements. Along with the flexibility of such work schemes, everything else is flexible. There are no workers' unions and no permanent contracts; there is more outsourcing, but that also means people can be fired much more easily and there is not much stability. In addition, the neo-liberalism of the new work order means that the state has minimum involvement in the labor market and so there are fewer regulations to protect women and ensure equality. What more can the government do to better protect women's rights in the workplace? Well, there is quite a good law that already exists, which is meant to protect women from discrimination, but women have to be aware of it. Even if they are in a desperate situation or if they have lost their way, the law is there to help and protect them. From my research, I have found that the law does pave the way to equality, but it will only work if women speak out about what has happened to them. One study I did focused on 100 pregnant women after childbirth. Fifty of them were not protected by the law, i.e. their employer did not have to bring them back to work after their maternity leave, and 50 had been protected by the law, which said their employer had to allow them to return for a minimum of 90 days after their maternity leave. What came out was that when an employer was forced to take the woman back they realized that she was a valued employee and that even after the birth of a child her capacity in the workplace had not diminished. Should maternity leave be extended in line with certain other countries? Perhaps that will afford women the chance to spend more time with their babies but not have to give up working? There is always this paradox. On one hand a woman wants to stay at home with the baby, but on the other hand, with the new work order, things can change rapidly in the job market. I always recommend to my clients that they should keep their career on a back burner. That could mean working part time or independently when their children are small, until they are ready to fully plunge themselves back into the labor market. Since the end of the 1990s, being a mother here is simply not enough. Aside from the economic situation that means both partners need to work, when you are at the park with your children people are not likely to ask you what type of formula you are using, but will most probably ask what you do for a living. Is there too much pressure today for women to have a career these days? Were our mothers or grandmothers better off when they did not have such a choice? I'm familiar with this anti-feminist or post-feminist approach, but I believe the most important thing is allowing people the freedom to make their own choices. If you want to go out to work, don't apologize for it; if you want to be a mother, don't apologize for it; and if you want to do both, don't apologize for that either.

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