We Will Hire You If...
My friend told me a few weeks ago that she turned down an offer to work for a large and prosperous company. She turned down a job at the time when recession is hitting hard in a country that has been struggling to get back on its feet for almost 20 years.
The SFRY (Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia) used to be one of the leading countries in the world (a co-founder of The Non-Aligned Movement, for example), but after the civil war and the dissolution, the now independent ex-Yu countries found it hard to cope with transition. Serbia was no exception. What's more, after the NATO bombing in 1999 and ten years of complete embargo, its devastated industry and economy have had to face the change in the political system. The transition from socialism into capitalism is not easy. Unemployment rates are high, young people are highly motivated to leave the country, and when you eventually land a job, it will probably not be what you set out for in the first place.
So, her decision struck me as odd. For anyone to decline a very well paid job in an international company seems a luxury. But it is nothing of the sort. It is a matter of human dignity and principles.
I asked her what her reasons were, and her story – to put it mildly – shocked me. She had already been working for the company as an external associate, and now she applied for an inside position – a transition that should have been smooth and well earned since she had already proved her worth and professional skills in many situations. But then came the official job interview. A director, who had known her for some time now, asked her that infamous question “do you plan to have children in the next 5 years?” This is an outrage in itself. Women are discriminated because of the possibility of becoming pregnant. No ambitious capitalist-wannabe firm will hire you unless you say (and sign!) that you will not have children in the next 2 years – the bare minimum. This applies not only to higher ranking positions, but to the simplest menial jobs, like working at a cash register. Serbia is threatened by ‘white plague’ – sub-replacement fertility – and women are encouraged by the government to have more than the usual one or two children. Facing the prospects of remaining unemployed, it is no wonder they delay having children and even end up having none at all. I am not saying they all necessarily want to have children (mercifully, in Serbia, for more than 50 years now, women have had control over their body and biological predispositions and chose how they would use them), but if they do, no employer should be allowed to tell them when. A pregnant woman is not an invalid (unless it is a high-risk pregnancy) and in most cases she is capable of working until the last trimester. And the Law guarantees her a year-long maternity leave after the baby is born.
Maternity leave. It is precisely this that the money-greedy companies fear. They fear losses and expenses and in 80% of cases would more gladly hire a man instead of a woman, even though he could be less qualified and a less worthy candidate. This explains the higher rate of unemployment in the female part of the population. If your answer is "yes" you will probably never hear from the company again.
Thus, the question of family planning paved its way into job interviews. And it is being posed only to women, naturally. Such a question drags other of its kind – “are you married?" turns into "do you have a partner at the moment? Do you intend to marry?”, etc.
But what my friend was asked was even more absurd. “How many partners have you had so far?” Embarrassed silence. While she was trying to regain calm after having been so rudely, and utterly inappropriately, asked about such a personal matter, the director decided he knew the answer and asked her plainly and directly whether she had ever had sexual intercourse before. My friend sat there and remained obstinately silent, half out of shock and half out of indignation. And reasonably so.
She walked out of the office (she got an offer) saying she does not want a job that requires her to renounce having children and where she will be scrutinized not on the basis of her work but of her intimate life. She retained her human dignity and acted out of protest because she was not treated as an equal to her male colleagues. Sadly, due to the economic situation, there are many women who will endure such humiliation from fear they would not be able to make ends meet otherwise.
The government is trying hard to pass laws that will prevent such harassment conducted by private enterprises (job interviews for the state-owned firms are rare, since they are doing badly, but fair and promote equality). Until then, I heard some private companies have come up with a strange solution – in order to prevent women from complaining to the government, they decided to treat both sexes ‘equally’. Now men are occasionally asked whether they intend to get married and when. Things are really getting out of control. By asking men that, they believe they have the right to continue poking into women’s lives. Women are still the main target. This pretense of equal treatment is equally appalling. One’s work performance should have nothing to do with one’s intimate life.
What is disturbing is that these ‘progressive’ privately-owned companies are getting more support from their foreign partners than the state-owned ones that are regarded as ‘backward’ and ‘remnants of the old system’. The foreign investors are missing the irony of their beliefs.