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Pregnancy: the unequal burden

14 November 16

Employment briefing: the EHRC Report on Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination finds an alarming level of discrimination still being suffered by women in relation to pregnancy and maternity leave

by Amanda Jones

Unfortunately, the demand for better job protection for pregnant women and new mothers is not a new phenomenon. Despite ongoing campaigns of MPs and other women’s rights groups, reports of women being bullied, harassed or demoted as a result of their pregnancy continue. In fact, worryingly, many women are happy simply to have retained their job on their return from maternity leave.

To address this, the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills and the Equality & Human Rights Commission jointly commissioned a study to investigate the prevalence and nature of pregnancy discrimination and disadvantage in the workplace. The survey considered the views and experiences of 3,024 employers and 3,254 mothers on a range of issues related to managing pregnancy, maternity leave and returning to work.

Where practice falls short

The findings of this report were published earlier this year, and make concerning reading. An overwhelming majority of employers (84%) agreed that it was in their interests to support pregnant women and new mothers. However, the following statistics paint a different picture of what happens in practice:

  • 77% of mothers reported a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during their pregnancy, maternity leave or on their return to work;
  • around one in nine mothers were dismissed, made redundant, or resigned as a result of poor treatment, with low earners being more likely to lose their job than high earners;
  • 20% of mothers suffered harassment or negative comments in relation to their pregnancy;
  • 20% of mothers reported financial loss by way of demotion, salary reduction, loss of promotion or bonus. Again, lower earners were more likely to suffer financial loss.

In relation to flexible working, 68% of mothers submitted requests to rearrange their working hours to suit their new family requirements. Roughly three quarters of these requests were accepted. While
this appears to be a positive step, it is somewhat negated by the fact that half of those whose requests were accepted suffered detrimental treatment as a result of their flexible working.

The report also revealed some alarming attitudes from employers. One in four thought that it was reasonable to ask a woman during an interview if she was planning to have children, with 70% thinking that a woman applying for a job should state if she is pregnant. More than one in five employers considered pregnancy put an unreasonable cost burden on the workplace, with 17% thinking that pregnancy made women less interested in promotion.

What can be done?

The stats are clear, and inexcusable. Over three quarters of mothers, potentially 390,000 women a year, are experiencing negative treatment as a result of their pregnancy. So, what can be done about this? The EHRC made various recommendations, centred on improving employer practice, access to information and advice, health and safety, and access to justice.

These included extending the right to paid time off for antenatal appointments to all workers, and providing more rights to casual, agency and zero-hours contract staff. The report considered the rights provided in Germany and recommended that similar protection, whereby new and expectant mothers could only be made redundant in certain circumstances, is introduced here.

It also considered the protection offered in Denmark, and suggested that the Government introduce a similar collective insurance scheme to help employers from small and medium businesses provide enhanced pay and cover for maternity leave.

Barrier to claiming

With tribunal fees of up to £1,200, it is easy to see why women who are discriminated against are reluctant to bring a claim. The report recommended that the Government review tribunal fees and the time limits to bring a claim, although the situation in Scotland is of course different, the Scottish Government having committed to abolish fees.

While the Government did not accept the recommendations in relation to fees, it did commit to a number of other recommendations, including working to combat the gaps in employees’ and employers’ knowledge of their rights, and developing a clear source of consistent, accessible information.

This study has brought into sharp focus the experiences of pregnant women and mothers, highlighting that women face more discrimination now than they did a decade ago. It is clear that the Government must take steps to address this, and we wait expectantly to see how effective those steps will be. With a record number of women in work in the UK, it is more important than ever that employers address their practices and offer effective support and protection. Failure to do so could be detrimental to the economy, and cost businesses some of their most valuable assets.

Amanda Jones, partner, Maclay Murray & Spens LLP 

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