Why Chevron is asking women intrusive questions

Issue 
A Chevron recruitment form asked women how many abortions, stillbirths and "normal" children they have had.

Just what questions can you be asked when you apply for a job? According to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on October 12, global energy company Chevron asks some intrusive reproductive health questions of women applicants in its recruitment process.

Questions include whether an applicant has been sterilised, their pregnancy history, how many abortions and stillbirths they have had, the number of “normal” children they have and any birth defects their children may have.

This part of the recruitment form — Section F — is listed as optional but is a section “the company would appreciate you filling in”.

In another section dealing with illnesses there is no opt-out clause and again asks about pregnancy, breast lumps or pain, current capacity to bear children, and menstrual history and date of last period. It appears some of these questions, including the sterilisation question, ask the woman to answer for her partner as well.

The intrusive content of Chevron’s recruitment process was seen as insensitive, offensive and a potentially traumatic experience for women applicants, especially if they have been through many of the experiences such questions address. The issue of privacy seems not to be addressed at all.

Chevron Australia said this information “is guided by industry standards to ensure staff are safe and fit to work” and “any medical information is solely used by authorised medical professionals”. Any questions on reproductive history are “are explicitly voluntary”. All such questions are lawful.

Indeed the lawfulness of such questions appears to be factually correct according to legal advice.

They do not become unlawful until the information is used in a discriminatory way against women. As one legal expert said: “I think there’s a real lacuna [gap] in the law here in terms of protecting the employees during the [selection] process.”

But is this so? If similar questions are not asked of male applicants and their partners then surely there is a discriminatory process taking place. Similar reproductive-based questions in interviews that applied only to female applicants (whether single or married) were part of why anti-discrimination legislation was established in Australia in the first place.

WHY ONLY WOMEN?

The Chevron Corporation is a US-based enterprise covering all aspects of oil, gas, geothermal energy, chemicals, mining, power generation in all aspects of extraction, refining, production and distribution of products globally through its nationally based affiliates.

There is a long history of using pregnancy and its potential to move women out of, or deny access to, jobs.

In the US during the 1980s and 1990s, steps were taken to ratify the exclusion of women from certain jobs into industrial law on the basis of their potential pregnancy — their fertility. This used the lead industry as the test case with flow on effects into many other industries including the petroleum, oil, natural gas and no doubt coal seam gas and similar industries using fracking type technologies with a range of chemicals in the extraction process.

Women faced with such exclusion have taken radical measures in order to keep their jobs. For example in 1991 in the US, five women chose sterilisation in a vain attempt to keep their jobs faced with management’s ban on fertile women on a lead production line.

Yet the dangers of such foetal protection are applied selectively. In predominantly male dominated industries the danger of maternal risk factors are overestimated and those of paternal risk factors are either underestimated or not considered. Such means can be used to exclude women from breaking into gender segregated industries while exposing men to serious health risk.

On the other hand industries in which women predominate traditionally — manufacturing, dry cleaning and health industries where x-ray and CT technologies are used — the use of reproductively damaging substances has not been subject to, nor developed, foetal protection policies.

The risk of viral infections in health and early childhood development work has not generated such policies either. And of course it is highly unlikely that these policies are found in the Third World.

WHY THE QUESTIONS?

So why are intrusive questions asked in Australia today?

Chevron is a global player and increased strategic planning taken over short, medium and longer terms includes recruitment, succession planning and the availability of “human capital” (people and skills) to fill future growth and development plans. Such planning also considers risk assessment.

No one is privy to the logic of Chevron’s planners but, speculating, perhaps they are seeking to make sure that no women can make a claim against Chevron on the basis of reproductive damage by ensuring that women who do work with potentially harmful materials and processes already have fertility or reproductive problems.

Or perhaps they think by using medical professionals to provide professional advice concerning health and safety issues based on women’s medical and reproductive history information they can reduce litigation risks such as discrimination.

Similar methods have been done before with great success by the tobacco industries, to say nothing of James Hardie and asbestos.

Perhaps they anticipate that changes in government will mean changes to industrial law which will allow greater flexibility and reduced risk for the company.

Or to new requirements by regulatory bodies such as the Workplace Gender Equality Agency which from next year will begin to require private-sector employers to report on a range of gender information on remuneration, strategies to address the 17.55% pay gap between men and women on full-time work and the likely outcomes of such plans.

We can all speculate but one thing is certain — you don’t collect such information unless you see some potential risk that you want to reduce.