Pregnancy discrimination is pervasive – research shows

Dianah Worman

Extensive new research commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) shows worrying evidence about the extent and nature of disadvantage in the workplace related to pregnancy and maternity related discrimination across the UK (Adams, L., Winterbotham, M. et al (2016)).

Survey interviews with 3,254 mothers and 3,034 employers explore experiences and perceptions on a range of issues related to managing pregnancy, maternity leave and mothers returning to work from maternity leave. The CIPD was pleased to contribute views and ideas to support this major study, guided by the expertise from members of its Senior Diversity Network.

Mothers responded to a combination of survey questions which included: feeling forced to leave their job; financial loss; negative impact on opportunity, status or job security; risk to or impact on health or welfare; harassment/negative comments; negative experience related to breastfeeding; negative experience related to flexible working requests, and any other negative experiences. The term negative impact on opportunity, status or job security refers to mothers’ responses to a combination of survey questions including: not being informed about promotion opportunities; being denied training opportunities; removal of duties; being treated with less respect; and threatened with dismissal or put under pressure to hand in their notice or leave.

The headline findings show a stark picture. Overall, three in four mothers (77%) said they had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy, maternity leave, and/or on return from maternity leave. Around one in nine mothers (11%) reported they felt forced to leave their job. This included those being dismissed (1%); made compulsorily redundant, where others in their workplace were not (1%); or feeling treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their job (9%).

One in five mothers (20%) said they experienced harassment or negative comments related to pregnancy or flexible working from their employer/colleagues. One in 25 mothers (4%) left their jobs because of risks not being tackled. One in ten (10%) mothers were discouraged from attending antenatal appointments. Over two thirds of mothers (68%) submitted a flexible working request and around three in four of these mothers reported that their flexible working request was approved. Around half of mothers (51%) who had their flexible working request approved said they felt it resulted in negative consequences.

Regarding employers – while the majority (84%) reported that it was in their interests to support pregnant women and those on maternity leave – 27% felt pregnancy put an unreasonable cost burden on the workplace; 17% believed that pregnant women and mothers were less interested in career progression and promotion than other employees; and 7% did not think mothers returning from maternity leave were as committed as other members of their team. While the majority of employers were positive about managing most of the statutory rights relating to pregnancy and maternity (for each statutory right, more than half of employers felt it was reasonable and easy to facilitate) some employers thought particular statutory rights were unreasonable or difficult to manage.

As women make up almost half of the UK workforce (around 47%) and over 15 million women are active in the UK labour market at any time, the research findings present a bleak picture. The percentage of women who are working or actively seeking work is at its highest level on record (around 72%) and in nearly 30% of couples that are not same sex, the woman is the higher earner. Around 11 million (78%) of parents work and working parents make up around 36% of the workforce. Supporting parents to join and stay in the labour market is a priority for the Government.

While the UK has a strong framework of employment protections, including maternity rights to protect women from suffering disadvantage at work because they take time out to have a child, it is clear that more public interventions are needed to address the worrying situation the research has uncovered. The recommendations made by the EHRC to address the problems surfaced by the research have been considered by the Government which has issued its response. The Government believes that it will take coordinated action from Government, the EHRC and business – at all levels and of all sizes, as well as stakeholders to truly tackle pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination in the workplace and stamp it out for good. It is committed to working with everyone to achieve this.

Essentially other than support for a review of the tribunal fee system which has curtailed the number of discrimination cases progressed to the courts, recognition and support in principle has been given to the suggested recommendations for action with relevant caveats. The EHRC recommendations and Governments reactions to them are related to the progress of:

• leadership for change through partnership working between the EHRC, the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments and business leaders to create a joint communications campaign aimed at employers, underlining the economic benefits of unlocking and retaining the talent and experience of pregnant women and new mothers, and demonstrate creative approaches to attracting, developing and retaining women in the workforce before, during and after pregnancy.

• the feasibility of a collective commercial insurance scheme to support small and medium-sized employers to spread the cost of providing enhanced maternity pay (where they wish to do so) and cover for maternity leave.

• improving employer practice to prevent employers seeking information about women’s pregnancy, motherhood or plans to have children that could be used to discriminate unlawfully during recruitment but not by legislating further but by raising employers’ awareness of the rights of pregnant women and employers’ responsibilities towards them, including their legal obligations.

• developing interventions that enable employers to manage and make the best use of the talent and experience of pregnant women and new mothers through a programme of work that includes video case studies of good practice by employers in managing pregnancy, maternity leave and the mother’s return to work – including breastfeeding; an online toolkit aimed at small and medium-sized employers who may not have HR expertise in managing employees who are pregnant, on maternity leave or returning to work; and online guidance on discrimination and pregnancy and maternity rights aimed at individuals and employers.

• Acas working with the EHRC to raise the awareness about existing guidance on recruiting and managing pregnant women and maternity-related issues and absence, and producing training for line managers.

• easier access to information and advice for women by reviewing the availability of and women’s ease of access to employment advice services and addressing any barriers identified using existing information channels, such as health professionals, and existing mechanisms, such as MAT B1 Forms.

• improved access to comprehensive on-line site information for diverse audiences with appropriate signposting, drawing on appropriate sector expertise, so that employers and individuals can easily find out about their rights, responsibilities and good practice in relation to pregnancy and maternity in the workplace.

• improving health and safety guidance and risk assessment practices to new and expectant mothers taking into account particular industry sectors and occupational groups by working with stakeholders in these areas to improve practice and raise employers’ awareness of their health and safety obligations to pregnant women and new mothers, and awareness of existing guidance on breastfeeding.

• monitoring progress by including relevant questions about pregnancy and maternity discrimination and disadvantage in planned surveys of employers and mothers and the experiences of Acas in the cases they deal with.
Going forward, employers cannot afford to ignore the alarm bells which the research findings have set off. It shows a big gap between rhetoric and reality across the board. The findings also point to a number of employers lagging behind their progressive contemporaries who are at a serious disadvantage in retaining crucial female talent.

 

 

Adams, L., Winterbotham,M. et. al (2016) Pregnancy and Maternity-related Discrimination and Disadvantage: Experiences of Employers, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Equalities and Human Rights Commission

Adams, L., Winterbotham, M. et al (2016) Pregnancy and Maternity-related Discrimination and Disadvantage: Experiences of Mothers, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Equality and Human Rights Commission.

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