I ran into someone from a place I used to work the other day, and caught up on some office gossip. Moe Green had taken over the Tropicana club, Fredo was in Havana, etc., etc. But the interesting part, in a fairly conventional way, was the story of a woman (whom I’ll call Shirley McZoobooboombah-OnStar, which is her real name) who arrived not long before I left and became pregnant soon after she arrived, or possibly she was pregnant when she started the new job. She continued working up till nearly her due date and then went on maternity leave about the time I moved on. Well, it emerged from my interlocutor that she returned to work for a month or three after she had used up her leave, and then gave her notice that she was quitting.
I gather that this is a fairly common story and a bit of a problem for employers, who obviously don’t want to hire and train an employee, only to immediately have to subsidize her pregnancy and fill her spot with a temp, and then after all that to have her move right along and need to repeat the process. The problem here is that employers begin to turn the gimlet eye on all female applicants of a certain age who might present a risk of doing something similar.
That’s where labor law comes into it. For example, employers can’t just ask someone in an interview whether she’s planning on having kids. That would be discriminatory. If a woman thought she didn’t get a job (or lost a job or was passed over for promotion) because she might get pregnant, she would probably have grounds for a lawsuit. Nonetheless, women are often scared that exactly this sort of discrimination will occur and they won’t be able to detect it or prevent it. I don’t doubt that this fear is quite reasonable.
The thing is this: I think businesses would be less likely to discriminate against women in general, or married or cohabiting women aged 23-36 in particular, if they could be assured there is less of a likelihood of someone pulling a Shirley on them. Some ruthless companies might prefer never to hire women because of the risk that they may have to pay a maternity benefit, but I think they’re the exception. Most companies will, I think, gladly hire talented women and won’t mind paying out maternity benefts and letting them raise a family, as long as the company gets a reasonable return on their investment in the form of a few years of loyal service. But they gotta watch out for Shirley. And so Shirley, by cashing in on the system, adds a drop of poison to the well for all other women with careers.
It’s a ‘tragedy of the commons’ problem for women. There exists a perverse incentive for individuals to do what Shirley did, even though it’s against the interests of women as a group.
I’m not sure that there’s anything particularly original in my analysis up to this point. But like Pat O’Brien said, “This is all new to me; I don’t do this for a living.” I’m curious about this tension between a woman’s short-term interests and women’s long-term interests. It seems that there ought to exist a strong social sanction among women, or at least among career-oriented women, against doing what Shirley did. If there is such disapproval, though, I haven’t really heard of it. Why not? Seems like it ought to be an affront to Sisterhood or feminine solidarity or some such. There ought to be an amusing, snarky nickname for people who exploit maternity benefits, because “pulling a Shirley” just isn’t going to catch on. Well, here’s your chance to invent one, if you’re so inclined, and leave it in the comments. (more…)