Thursday, July 7, 2011

Rights and Wrongs

I was reading this post yesterday by The Feminist Breeder about the legal rights of pregnant and birthing students, and it got me thinking.  In her post, TFB describes how a professor tried to dock her marks for missing class while giving birth [because, OMG, it wouldn't be fair to give you credit when you're not in class when other students can't miss class....except that, you know, you're having a freaking BABY, it's not like its a hangover or a touch of the flu...]
Fortunately when TFB posted on facebook about it, someone alerted her to her legal rights as a pregnant/birthing student and she was able to correct her situation.

This got me thinking of all the ways in which my own pregnant, birthing, and breastfeeding self was mistreated by various coworkers, managers, regional training coordinators, and educators in my previous job.
 On the one hand, I'm really glad to have worked the job I did for the time that I was there.  I had tons of fun despite pretty rampant lack of morale and a totally messed up organizational system, and a rather heavy helping of power with very little accountability individually or as a group.  There were a lot of really wonderful, funny, quirky, strong, smart people in my workplace.  Across the board, 99% of paramedics are hysterically funny.  It takes a rather dark and twisted sense of humour to cope with blood and guts and vomit and poop year in and year out, and the people I worked with were incredibly practiced at self deprication, well timed teasing, and storytelling.
So I spent an incredible amount of time peeing my pants laughing at work.
On the other hand, I'm also really grateful to have worked in a job that was traditionally a man's job.  It is the type of profession that morphed from loggers and shipyard workers with first aid training, to a more intellectual and education based profession in a single generation.  It is unique to see a man's world from the inside, when you are a girl.  It simultaneously toughened me up and made me more sensitive.
I met paramedics who were dads with five kids, serial ladies' men, straight and narrow Christians, women with three and four kids, triathletes, military veterans, recent immigrants from Europe, Asia, South America, and Australia, birth nuts, trauma junkies, and med school wannabes.  I saw calls where trains smashed into cars, people, animals, trucks, and rivers.  Car crashes on freeways, in rivers, in ditches, canals, lakes, ravines, rock walls, telephone poles, light poles, and other vehicles.  An airplane crash, and dozens of ambulance helicopters flying, landing, taking off, loading, unloading, landing in school soccer fields, public parks, on highways, on hospital landing pads, and (most often) at airports.  I've met people sicker than I ever thought possible, and crazier than I ever imagined.  But mostly, I just met normal people doing normal things and getting a little bit sick or a little bit hurt.  It was the coolest job ever.

A few incidents where my legal and human rights were in jeapordy while I was at the above job were;
(1.) When I was hired, I happened to be three months pregnant with Ayden.  This was a colossal accident and something I hid from my potential boss because I learned from my mom's experience where she ended a job interview with, "You do know I'm pregnant, right?" and that was the end of that job.  It is illegal in Canada to discriminate against a woman in the hiring process because she is pregnant.  Very hard to prove, of course, but illegal nonetheless.  Pregnant women gotta work, too.
My boss chewed me out after he found out (three months later when it was too late), and I heard reports from several coworkers that he stomped around growling about how I should have told him and he never would have hired me if he had known.  He couldn't fire me, but he did make my life miserable.
-He refused to order me maternity uniforms because they cost the budget too much
-He scheduled me the exact opposite of the shifts I requested and in the most undesirable patterns
-He complained that it wasn't fair for me to continue to accumulate seniority while on maternity leave and made snarky comments about my experience level not matching my seniority level.
-When I returned to work after my entitled 52 week maternity leave, he refused to order me uniform in my now much smaller size and I resorted to wearing jeans at work until I got a strip torn off me by ALS paramedics and I went to the store and bought myself some pants that matched the uniform issue pants
-He also refused to order me the uniform issue paramedic jacket (cost $350 from the budget) because "I lacked real seniority--the type that you earn by working."

(2.) Training.  I was hired at a time when you had basic first aid training and then you were educated after you were hired, funded by the province.  There was no option to pay for your own training at that time.  Guess what?  I had a baby the weekend of one of my training seminars, so I was kicked out of school.  My union didn't help me (I suspect they simply didn't know my rights in this regard), and simultaneously discouraged me from contacting the Human Rights Tribunal "Because you will lose all union backing and support if you go to an outside agency for rights protection."  But you just told me there's nothing you can do!
I contacted manager after manager after training coordinator after school director after etc, etc, and eventually someone must have realized I DID have rights after all, because they let me back into training.

Coincidentally, funding for training halted partway through my program and didn't restart for three years.  When it restarted, I was not allowed back into training because I had 'dropped out' of that initial training when I had a baby four years prior!  I had to fight hard yet again to be 'allowed' back into training.

Near the end of my training I applied to transfer to a high density area and was refused this position because I had 'dropped out' of training and was therefore not eligible for urban positions.  I was standing OUTSIDE MY EXAM ROOM on my cellphone arguing with Human Resources that I was in paid training, trying to complete my final exams as we spoke, and that I was, in fact, eligible for urban positions.  Eventually that was settled in my favour.

(3.) Breastfeeding.  Oh boy.  I worked hard to ensure none of my coworkers knew what that big black briefcase looking bag contained (my breast pump), and I pumped in every hospital bathroom in the Lower Mainland on every construed break I could ever manage to come up with.  I basically didn't eat my meal breaks; I pumped on meal breaks and ate in the car on the way to and from calls.  I had rights here, but I didn't want to push them.  You have to balance "I'm a girl in the workforce and I have rights" with "I'm a girl in a man's world and I need to fit at least partially into the man's world in order to get along with the men in this world."

(4.) Working while pregnant.  I did this job through three pregnancies.  Being a paramedic is extremely physically demanding.  There are no desk jobs.  When someone needs help lifting, everyone else has to pick up the slack.  No one appreciates this, because their own bodies are always breaking down as a result of too much heavy lifting over a lifetime of paramedic work.  I got hassled a lot for working while pregnant.  Especially by one particular woman I work with.  It's pregnancy, not an illness.

(5.) Sexual harrassment.  Rampant.  I've had men rub up against me--coworkers, mind you: patients it's pretty much unavoidable and you have to develop a tough skin and a toolbox full of verbal spitfire to protect yourself.  The amount of sexual harrassment that female medical personnel are subject to via patients is astronomical, but what can you do about it?  There is no sensitivity training for patients.  But coworkers.  That you don't expect.  I've had several berate me for continuing to accrue seniority while on maternity leave.  Comments regarding asses, tits, the smell of your crotch, stuff you wouldn't believe.  Comments regarding unconscious female patients within my earshot.  Most of the guys I worked with were stellar.  A few were slimy assholes.  The assholes go unchecked.

(6.) General harrassment.  Another boss locked me in his office and accused me of payroll fraud, schedule manipulation, calling in sick when I wasn't sick, and then being a "fucking wimpy girl" when I started to cry.  Then he mocked me in front of my coworkers later in the day for having cried.

So why is it that women should be able to be hired while pregnant when they are just going to go on maternity leave in a few months anyways?  Why should women accrue seniority while they are at home taking care of their babies for 52 weeks?  Why shouldn't they be denied access to training or promotions or transfers that they aren't available for, or that they are not eligible for because they were off giving birth?

Society as a whole suffers if women are penalized for giving birth.  Women have talents and gifts and intelligence that contributes to their work forces and society as a whole when we are active participants in it.  Penalizing us for performing biological functions and for taking eligible maternity leave to care for our infants is unethical on many levels, not least of which is that we as a culture need to value families.  We need to value them enough to support women as they give birth and care for their babies.  Breastfeeding rates and duration increase with longer maternity leaves.  More women are represented in parlaiment, CEO positions, management, leadership, government, and positions of authority when their rights are legally protected.  Rights such as equal access to jobs, positions, training, seniority, and promotions.
Women who are given the time and space by society to give birth and care for their children hassle free, have healthier children who grow into more emotionally functional adults, which benefits society as a whole.

What do you think?  Should I have had the right to be hired despite being pregnant?  Should I have the right to continued access to paid training even though I missed a weekend of training to have a baby, and no other excuse for absences were accepted?  Is accumulating seniority while on maternity leave fair?  Why should taxpayers foot the bill for my maternity benefits and my training as well as my salary as a public servant?


Asheya said...

Wow. Exceptional post. Is there some sort of blog award I can nominate you for? (I'm not kidding).

Fantastic points. More needs to be said on this topic--it's a tricky one. How is it possible that many women believe that feminism is over and done with???!!!

I think it's also interesting how you did feel you had to compromise with the breastmilk pumping, to get along with men in a man's world. Ouch. Somehow this idea of 'a man's world' has to change. The more women who work in 'men's' professions and stand up for their rights, hopefully the more it will change.

Doulanic said...

WOW. You put up with all that crap at work???? That's amazing. You deserve a medal JUST for that - never mind everything else!! Wow - you rock. I don't think I could have put up with that bull-s--t for that long, and I don't consider myself a "feminist". It's just about fairness. And being treated with respect. Ouch.

Andrea said...

Wow indeed! I can't believe those bosses you had! Good for you for hanging in there and advocating for yourself! I had never really thought about the seniority issue before. You've brought up some excellent points about how society as a whole benefits when we support motherhood.

melissa said...

@Asheya, thanks for the blog love....I'm not sure of any blog awards but your appreciation is pretty cool! =) It's true about feminism: so much is still lacking with regards to women being treated equally. It not only bothers me when people consider feminism over and done; it bothers me when people profess not to be feminists....
We're all entitled to our opinions, but I want to ask people, don't you believe in women being educated? Because without feminism, women would still be barred from universities. Blech. I think there is a very common misconception out there that there is only one type of feminism, and it is very wrapped up in lesbian rights and abortion. These issues are important ones that are rightfully examined by feminism, but there are so many types of feminism and different views that are so widely diverse in their concerns and beliefs, that it is rather sad that feminism gets simplified to the point of being rejected by so many. Especially Christians.

@Nic; thanks babe! Like I wrote at the beginning of my post, the benefits outweighed the hard bits in this job. Life isn't fair, and the job helped me to learn to stick up for myself, in a major way. =)

@Andrea, I still can't believe the bosses either. I shake my head every time I think about it~there was something about sleazy assholes that greased the ladder for guys going into management. It was a like a prerequisite: have you ever been charged with harrassment? Okay, let's promote you!!!