Carol Sarler #sexist dailymail.co.uk
Much as I like to trumpet the importance of a woman's right to choose all things at all times, there's one choice I simply cannot understand: the choice of an otherwise sane and healthy woman not to have children.
If a would-be mother is a singleton of 40 who decides to have a baby without a partner, I might wish she'd thought of it sooner and prepared for it better - but I understand.
If she's half of a lesbian couple who 'borrows' the wherewithal, I might cross my fingers that the child is not teased at school - but I understand. Even if she's a 66-year- old pregnant pensioner, threatening to turn motherhood into a freak show, I might (indeed, I do) think she's monstrously selfish and dangerously wrong - but again, more or less, I understand.
Yet if she says she hasn't a shred of maternal feeling in her, moreover, if she says she would prefer to concentrate on her career and that a child would only get in the way of it, then my head might acknowledge her right to do so. But my heart whispers: 'Lady, you're weird.'
It was welcome news, therefore, to discover this week that I am not alone. Research conducted over six years shows that far from bosses and colleagues always being suspicious of a working mother, the opposite is becoming true: it is the childless woman who is regarded as cold and odd.
As a result, it is these single-track careerists who are increasingly likely to be vilified, refused jobs and denied promotion because many employers believe them to lack what the study calls 'an essential humanity'. And I know exactly what they mean.
In the little hothouse of my own trade as a hack, I play a game with myself. Reading all the other female scribblers, sometimes with grudging admiration and sometimes none at all, I try to guess from their expression of their world view whether or not they are mothers.
I haven't - yet - been wrong. Now, with MPs so much in the headlines, I've extended the game and started to guess about the women among them, too.
As far as I can tell, my score is also pretty high there - even though it's just a feeling. On both sides of the political divide, as with the writers, it's not what MPs say or do, so much as how they go about it.
'Mothers bring something extra'
And if that touch of 'essential humanity' - or its absence - colours such notably tough professions, it's hardly surprising that employers are starting to notice that the same applies across the spectrum of workplaces.
Of course, we need not be silly about it.
Nobody wishes to see a female soldier in combat with a six-week-old infant in one arm and a rifle in the other.
Or a high-flier working 20-hour days while still breast-feeding. Or the mother of a small brood taking on any job of such erratic hours that she cannot promise them when or even if she'll be home.
But most jobs aren't like that - and most children don't stay babies for long.
Besides which, in my experiences both as a colleague and an employer, I have found that mothers almost always bring something extra to the job, to the benefit of all.
It's not the mothers, for a start, who are going to turn up late and hungover after a night on the razz; they'll have been up, dressed and alert for hours, having cooked a family breakfast and delivered their children to school. On time.
It's not the mothers, usually, who run the office bitch-fest.
They're not there to compete for the attentions of the male executives; they're there to get out of the house; they're there because they genuinely enjoy some adult company; and they're there because they have mouths to feed other than their own and shoes to buy for someone else's feet.
Two-thirds of working mothers, a recent survey found, could not provide for the children they love in the manner they would wish if they lost their jobs. So there's incentive for you.
They will, it is true, snatch time off for poorly children and Christmas carol services. And it's true they will insist that, in return for arriving on the dot of 9am, they must also leave on the dot of 5pm.
But rarely have I encountered a mother who did not offer to make up time lost, often in lunch hours. As for leaving on time, put enough mothers together in one workplace and you'll get rid of the ghastly ethos of 'presenteeism', whereby people vie for plaudits based solely on how late - albeit often uselessly - they hang around the office.
The prioritising that may baffle other people is a cinch for a woman who has spent years juggling a household. Negotiating skills? A request for 10 per cent off an overdue invoice is nothing to a woman who has had to broker a deal on Britain's Got Talent versus bedtime.
When it comes to emergencies, if you have run all the way to a clinic with a terrified toddler vomiting down your neck then, trust me, a package delayed in transit is a piece of cake. And if those are the tangibles, the intangibles - the 'essential humanity' - are more important still.
You cannot be a mother without knowing something about selflessness, compassion, generosity, commitment, fierce loyalty and plain hard work. You cannot - surely - be a boss and not value assets such as those in your staff.
Nor is it the boss who pays the price for the extras a mother brings with her; she's the one who pays for that. Enough reams have been written about the long hours of slog it takes to run a home and hold down a job at the same time. Yet still we keep doing it because we want our work, our independence and our money.
But, more than all the things we want, we actually need our children; they complete us as women, they are our light and our love and our legacy.
We feel desperately sorry for those who yearn for children they cannot have; the unwilling barren, if you will. But when we meet a woman who chooses her childlessness in the belief that there is something out there worth more, we smile politely even while - once again - our guts whisper: 'Lady, you're weird.'
So three cheers for the employers who are catching on, the ones who don't want to people their workforces with the cold, the calculating, the sad and the mad. The only question is: what took you so long?