Pregnancy and Job Seeking. Is it Time to Lie?

A reader seeks advice on an acutely female ethical dilemma. She has just landed a much-wanted interview for a nine-month job, but discovers herself pregnant. The child, if born, will be her third. If she miscarries, it will be for the third time, too.

She wants the baby but, because of this history, is loath to reveal her situation to her prospective employer. She doesn’t even want friends or family to know, so why should an interview panel be privy to her private news? And if she cruels her chance of employment by telling, then miscarries again, she’ll be left with nothing – neither baby nor job. She’s done this before, withdrawn from a selection process for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, only to lose the pregnancy.

Still she worries about misleading, or worse, being unfair. The law matters here. Law and ethics are different but practical moral advice must account for what the law forbids or requires. Although NSW law allows employers not to hire a woman if she is expecting at the time of interview, in most cases a refusal to employ a woman because she is pregnant violates federal anti-discrimination law.

This means that if an employer uses a job seeker’s disclosure of pregnancy as a reason not to hire her, he is likely to be breaking the law: something job applicants are under no obligation to facilitate. If the employer heeds the law and disregards fertility status when making employment decisions, why should a woman be duty-bound to tell?

But even if the woman is not legally obliged to disclose her pregnancy, is she morally bound to do so? I think not, for two reasons.

First, because the implications of a positive pregnancy test in the months after conception are unclear. The one in five Australian miscarriage rate means that while the result could indicate impending motherhood, it may not. I ride my bike to work each day; a friend has high blood pressure. We all present some risk to our employers that we might fall off our perch. If they need human resources to do the work, it is a risk they must take.

Second, because if women have a duty to report all would-be pregnancies to a would-be boss, the workplace discrimination and disadvantage they already suffer is likely to increase. Why should women be obliged to increase the challenges they already face – as a result of sexism, and structural barriers to work-family balance – in landing, keeping and making headway in a job?

The truth is that most sexually active women aged 13 to 50 are at risk of being pregnant. If these facts of female fertility, as against the male sort, are seen as legitimate grounds for employer discrimination then equal opportunity for women will remain a pipe dream: an ideal to which we pay lip service but are unwilling to do the hard work to achieve.

This is not to say that once hired and sure the pregnancy will stick, a pregnant woman ought not disclose to her employer, and do all she can to ensure that the requirements of the position are met when she leaves.

It’s easy to mouth platitudes about equal opportunity. Easy to tell our daughters that they can achieve anything they want in this world. Easy to assert that a commitment to gender equity is what makes Western civilisations so different and great.

A dilemma like this puts such sentiments to the test – one woman at a time.

Publication history

Should women stay mum about pregnancy?  The Sydney Morning Herald