Urgent action needed to quell rise in pregnancy and maternity discrimination

By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor

Camilla, pregnant and until very recently working 30 hours per week as a hotel cleaner on a zero-hours contract, contacted the Working Families legal helpline earlier this year after being summarily dismissed for taking time off work due to a pregnancy-related illness. The helpline team considered Camilla to have a strong claim for unlawful pregnancy-related dismissal, but she was unwilling to risk up to £1,200 of her savings on issuing and pursuing a tribunal claim. Not without difficulty, Camilla had managed to save just over £3,000 to cover the extra expense she knew would come with having a baby – not least because she would receive only the statutory rate of maternity pay while on maternity leave. And those savings meant that Camilla was ineligible for any remission of the fees.

Year after year, the Working Families legal helpline team deals with dozens of such cases. And, in recent years, the team have sensed that such unlawful treatment of new and expectant mothers at work is becoming both more common, and more blatant. Now, the first findings of a £1 million, joint research study by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) and the Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC) – the largest ever study of its kind – suggests such discrimination is indeed more widespread than ever.

The 18-month research study – launched by the then minister for women and equalities, Maria Miller MP, in October 2013 – included interviews with 3,034 employers, and with 3,254 mothers of a child aged between nine and 24 months who had worked during pregnancy. This provides a robust evidence base on the scale and nature of the discrimination experienced by women, and on employer attitudes and approaches to managing pregnancy, maternity leave, and return to work.

The key BIS/EHRC research findings

Despite more than four in five of the more than 3,000 employers surveyed agreeing that it is in the interests of their business to support pregnant employees and those on maternity leave, and a similar proportion considering the statutory legal rights relating to pregnancy and maternity to be both reasonable and easy to implement, the BIS/EHRC research study found that:

  • Unlawful maternity and pregnancy discrimination is now more common in Britain’s workplaces than ever before, with as many as 54,000 pregnant women and new mothers – one in nine – forced out of their job each year. This is almost twice the figure of 30,000 suggested by similar (but less robust) research undertaken a decade ago by the then Equal Opportunities Commission.
  • Single mothers, and younger mothers (under 25), are at particular risk, especially during pregnancy and maternity leave.
  • Women working in adult social care, childcare, hairdressing and other service occupations are most likely to experience unfavourable treatment during pregnancy. In these sectors, hundreds of thousands of women are employed on zero-hours contracts and other forms of precarious employment that offer little in the way of guaranteed hours or job security.
  • One in 12 of the women who had attended a job interview while pregnant reported being asked during interview whether they were pregnant, and a shocking one in four of the employers surveyed (wrongly) believe that it is reasonable to ask women candidates about their plans to have children.
  • One in 10 of the women surveyed said they were discouraged from attending antenatal appointments, and one in nine reported being encouraged to start maternity leave earlier than they wanted to.
  • Two in five of women said they would have liked to work more flexibly upon return from maternity leave, but did not ask to do so as they were concerned it would not be approved or that it would result in negative consequences.
  • Only one in 12 of those women who raised a concern about their treatment at work obtained legal advice from an external advice provider such as a law centre or CAB.

A clear need for urgent government action

Final BIS/EHRC research reports will be published later this year, alongside EHRC recommendations for policy action by government, but it is already clear that ministers need to take prompt, robust and effective action to ensure job security for all working women during pregnancy and maternity leave. Working Families and our partners in the Alliance Against Pregnancy Discrimination – including the Fawcett Society, Maternity Action, the NCT, the TUC, and the Royal College of Midwives – believe this must include:

  • The BIS/EHRC research confirms what Working Families and others have been saying for many years: that pregnancy and maternity discrimination is both widespread and deeply entrenched, with a significant minority of employers holding outdated and wholly inappropriate attitudes. This is bad for women and their families, bad for gender equality, and bad for the economy.
  • Ministers sending a strong message to employers that there is simply no excuse to flout the law on pregnancy and maternity discrimination.
  • Developing a strong, high-profile information campaign aimed at improving both women’s awareness of their rights, and employers’ understanding of their legal obligations and the business benefits of ‘doing the right thing’.
  • Delivering a significant injection of funding into the specialist information and advice services that pregnant women and new mothers clearly need to help protect their rights at work.
  • Improving women’s access to justice, including by scrapping the employment tribunal fees of up to £1,200 introduced in July 2013. It is now abundantly clear that these fees amount to nothing less than a charter for dinosaur and rogue employers (see our recent submission to the Justice select committee’s ongoing inquiry into the impact of the fees).
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