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The Social Balance Sheet: Are Your Employees Assets or Expenses?

Capitalism: when we treat property better than we treat people.

There was a time when businesses wanted women to have babies.

They recognized that when women staff become mothers, not only is it a beautiful, natural part of life, it’s also good for the economy because every newborn adds to the workforce of the future. In fact, women were encouraged to get pregnant and have as many babies as possible.

This sounds cold (and it is), but to the extent that companies need a “business case” for babies, this was a great one. When you look at our present labour conditions, it makes a lot of sense. You’re probably aware that in most of North America and Europe, populations are aging rapidly. As this article states: “Statistics Canada estimates that even with increased immigration, an aging population is unavoidable over the coming 50 years…between 2049 and 2058…Canada can expect more deaths than births.”

So the companies who believed that women having babies was good for business could be described as "long-term strategic thinkers".

When was this liberal, open-minded time in our history?

The U.S. Antebellum Period, from roughly the late 1700’s / early 1800’s to 1861 (the start of the U.S. Civil War). This era was noted for the thriving wealth of the U.S. south. Of course, you know what else was thriving at the same time: slavery.

ID: Illustration of slave trader selling black slaves to white men at a slave auction.
ID: Illustration of slave trader selling black slaves to white men at a slave auction.

Disclaimer: At this point I feel the need to state very clearly that I am not praising or condoning slavery, nor any “business practices” of the slave owners and plantation managers. (I hope this is obvious.) My point about slave owners wanting and often forcing their female slaves to have babies is not a compliment on their maternity leave policies (they had none).

Rather, I think it’s important to examine the way companies then and now view women labour (enslaved or employed) from an economic perspective, and how this subsequently impacts their mindset on, and treatment of, maternity and working mothers.

First, some caveats:

  • While paternal leave is applicable to women and men, my focus here is on women specifically, as the primary people group who give birth, and as the historically oppressed people group when it comes to paternal leave and working while parenting.

  • I recognize that anyone with a uterus can give birth, and they may not necessarily identify as a woman. I still refer to women only throughout this article, purely in reference to the historical and ongoing treatment of the majority of, but not all, people who have babies.

With that said, let's look at capitalist mindsets around employees of all genders including women.

Employees as Assets: Human Capital

I started this article by stating that Antebellum businesses wanted their women slaves to have babies, but this was obviously not out of empathy or human rights. It’s sad but true that slave owners valued their slaves highly because they were property and not people. When plantations acquired slaves, they were literally investing in human capital. As property, these slaves were financial assets which could appreciate or depreciate like land and buildings.

In true capitalist fashion, plantation managers cared for all their property only to the extent necessary to extract maximum production and profit from them. Arguably this meant the actual land and buildings were treated better than the human slaves were. I don’t need to tell you about the atrocious way the slave owners treated the enslaved, you can read about it in any honest account of history. Perhaps less well-known are the surprisingly sophisticated ways slaves were financially measured and tracked.

An inventory of enslaved people used by plantation owners (Image courtesy of Caitlin Rosenthal via UC Berkeley News)