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Why I was tempted to discriminate against women

By on November 27, 2009

It may seem odd to be writing about women’s employment and maternity rights in a blog dedicated to the business of games, but I make no apology. It is a fundamental issue that has already sparked debate in the technology world and will become more important in games as our industry matures (and as more developers become publishers).

Prospect magazine this month carried an article entitled The mother of all paradoxes which produces compelling evidence that generous maternity rights lead to systemic discrimination against women. As a former startup CEO, I fear Prospect is right.

The moral case for maternity rights seem clear to me, but if they achieve the opposite effect to that intended, is the conclusion clear cut?

And even I as I put forward the arguments, I find that I can’t make up my mind, and I need your help.

Family-friendly employment laws hurt the employment prospects of women

Catherine Hakim’s argument in Prospect can be summed up like this (although I urge you to read it for yourself. The arguments are much more sophisticated and are backed up by more research than I can précis here. Unfortunately, it’s behind a paywall – a sort-of summary can be found in this opinion column from the Telegraph):

  • The law penalises employers for not keeping a role open for a woman on maternity leave, while the mother can quit at any time with no penalty.
  • Only about half of women return to their previous jobs, a figure largely unchanged since maternity protection was introduced in the 1970s.
  • Sixty per cent of women signalled their intention to return to work, but research suggests that two-thirds of those that pledge to return had no intention of doing so (I struggle to reconcile this point with the previous one).
  • The impact on businesses can be substantial as “women in senior professional and managerial roles cannot always be easily replaced.”
  • Evidence from Sweden suggests that “family-friendly employment policies have been the cause of the glass ceiling for women, not the solution to it” (my emphasis). “Onerous maternity protection leads the private sector to systematically avoid hiring women, who then mostly work in the less well-paid public sector”.
  • Research has suggested that maternity leave of of around three to four months helps women’s employment but longer periods lead to what economists call ‘statistical discrimination’ against women in general.




In short, extending maternity rights can cause sufficient headaches for businesses to prompt blanket discrimination against women, except in the public sector.

My hiring experiences

As a vice-president at Deutsche Bank, I was involved in interviewing candidates for graduate roles in the Media Corporate Finance division. I am convinced that I had no gender bias, and the media team had one of the higher proportions of female to male graduate recruits in the division.

The thought of maternity issues never crossed my mind. Even if they had, Deutsche Bank could easily have afforded to pay generous maternity rights, although Prospect says that “some private sector employers – especially in the City – take the view that it is cheaper in time and money to dismiss a pregnant woman and pay compensation, so that a permanent replacement can be appointed immediately.”

As CEO of GameShadow, the thought did cross my mind. We were a small, struggling start-up with limited revenues. I wondered how we could cope if an employee became pregnant. It was not only the financial costs but the whole process and distraction of finding and training a temporary replacement that worried me.

I can’t say how reacted, because we didn’t get a single female applicant for any of the roles we advertised while I was there. (Why no women applied is a whole different subject for discussion, although since we were looking for technology staff in a hardcore PC gaming website, perhaps its not that surprising.)

The challenging paradox

I like to think I’m socially liberal. I believe maternity leave and working flexibility are something that should be available in a civilised society. (Full disclosure: I have a 12 month old baby; maternity rights have been important to me in the last year).

But the entrepreneur/start-up adviser in me is conflicted. Businesses benefit from a diverse workforce (ages, genders, ethnicities) and avoiding any one group eliminates a large pool of talent. But the risk of having a substantial portion of your workforce away on a legally-protected absence, preventing you from hiring and training a replacement or forcing you pay two salaries, is a huge burden to put on any business, let alone one built on such shaky foundations as a startup.

And if I worry about this, what will less scrupulous business people do? They’ll do what Catherine Hakim warns about and avoid “hiring or promoting younger women at all”.

Why this matters to game developers

The games industry is maturing. We are no longer an industry that attracts only games-obsessed men whose only interest is coding. Developers are becoming publishers, meaning they need marketers, finance teams, lawyers. In short, they need talent, and many of the best candidates are women.

Amongst my clients at the moment, there are women as head of studio and head of marketing. There are women in web design, in core coding, in finance and in art. Our industry is expanding and is no longer exclusively the preserve of men.

Companies who have previously only had a few women employees will move towards an equal split. But the issues I’ve highlighted above may put them off hiring the best candidates.

Why this matters now

(UPDATE: It was pointed out to me that the Equalities Bill doesn’t, in fact, include extending maternity rights. I blame Prospect, although it was ambiguous: “Her equalities bill follows Sweden’s lead, where maternity leave has been extended to three years and fathers are forced to take paternity leave.)

Harriet Harman is introducing an Equalities Bill that would extend maternity leave to three years. Catherine Hakim warns that this might be detrimental to the prospects of all women, although it may well be beneficial to mothers.

I’m already worried about the existing legislation. I don’t know what to think about this new bill. Will it help more than it will hurt? How do we reconcile family-friendly policies with the needs of business? How do we attract more women into games, technology and startups when the financial burden could (and I only mean could) be disastrous for an employer.

I don’t want to start a flame war but I want to open a discussion into an issue that has bothered me for three years now, on which I can’t make up my mind.

Over to you.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: