Thursday, 23 August 2012

When Gender Interferes with Work

When Roli Ekakite (not her real name) reported for her first day at her new job, it was with mixed feelings of trepidation and unease about what the day would be bringing her that overcast Monday morning. Almost five months before, she’d been given this job offer after she had successfully scaled through the whole gamut of the recruitment process, including the mandatory employment medicals. And then, surprisingly, at the end of it all, she had been asked to await confirmation of the date she’d be notified to resume. As the weeks of waiting turned to months, Roli naturally had to go on with her own personal life and aspirations. She got married to her longstanding sweetheart and before you knew it, in came the first early clues of her pregnancy.

Roli’s trepidation on this fateful first day at work arose from her being mindful that as she made to open the door to her new boss’ office, her tummy gave enough hint of her four months pregnancy. Knowing that within the industry in which she was resuming for work the unspoken policy appeared to be not to employ a pregnant woman and knowing also the content of her employment letter which specified a six months probationary period before possible confirmation could be given, Roli, with the thought that she was starting on the wrong footing feared for the worse. And the worse did come. Within moments of her encounter with her new boss, she got a call from Human Resources at her organisation’s head office concerning termination of her appointment.  
Roli’s situation is not an uncommon employment story in many sectors of the Nigerian economy, particularly in the financial sector where prospective employees must undertake the mandatory medicals that are instituted mainly with the view to discovering whether the prospective (female) employee is pregnant or not. Where pregnancy is discovered the female’s recruitment process will be cut short abruptly and she will not be given an employment letter.

It really becomes a jungle out there, especially for the woman who wishes to become the guinea pig to test the weight of the company policy concerning her right to childbearing as a worker within the organisation.
According to the Nigerian labour law, women in government employment and those in the private sector employment are entitled to 12 weeks (now 16 weeks for government workers) maternity leave with at least 50% pay. And more and more organisations especially those in the regulated sectors try to comply with this law. However, the law’s application becomes extremely hazy and subjective when the now commonly practiced “probation period” is thrown into the mix. The laws governing how a company will implement maternity during a woman’s probationary period becomes a really very tricky issue and oftentimes organisations will take the easy route, as happened with Roli, of simply terminating the employment of the female involved.

That it is a workforce dominated by male policy makers, has no doubt skewed policy enactment to disfavour consideration of many of the real circumstances facing the female folk. The male will never find himself in a situation where a decision has to be made about losing or keeping his job based on pregnancy, quite unlike his female counterpart who may have resumed work with him on the same day.
In the case of Roli she got a bit lucky. After several weeks of emotional turmoil caused by the letdown, a very influential relation of hers got to discover what had happened and caused a major uproar at the very top of the organisation. As a result she got reinstated, but only with the condition that she would have unpaid maternity leave and an extension of her probation period by the length of time she spent on maternity leave. For that organisation, it, going forward, became the policy for subsequent employees in the same scenario.

While this resolution to Roli’s situation is better than what used to be in place, the question has to be asked whether this is good enough. Should the womenfolk suffer unpaid wages because they cannot help but be the conduit or progenitor for the human race?

Written By Okechuku Kanu

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