Guest blog: Research confirms maternity discrimination still rife in Britain

(57 Posts)
JessMumsnet (MNHQ) Mon 12-Aug-13 14:45:10

Last week, leading Employment law firm Slater and Gordon published new research on the experience of 2,000 mothers returning to work, which was widely reported on by national media. The results were stark: 1 in 4 believed they were subjected to discrimination, either before or after the birth of their child. Researchers found 51 per cent considered their employers' and colleagues' attitude towards them changed when they fell pregnant, while two thirds said things were 'difficult' for them since they returned from maternity leave.

Here, Slater and Gordon's Samantha Mangwana, a Principal Lawyer specialising in Employment and Discrimination issues, reflects on the reaction to the news coverage, questions it's raised, and shares what experience has taught her about easing the transition back into work.

Have you faced discrimination at work because of your pregnancy, or alternatively, had a good experience? Let us know here on the thread - and if you blog about it, don't forget to post your URL.

"As a lawyer specialising in maternity discrimination cases for over eight years now, the results of the survey echoed the situation experienced by so many of my clients. I have seen an unexpected outpouring of rage and despair across digital media which followed the release of our research. I welcome the frank sharing of experiences which has flowed online as an important step towards changing attitudes, and tackling the problems women face in the workplace.

Working in the leading national team advising employees across all business sectors, I see at first hand the scale and impact of discrimination on women following pregnancy and maternity leave. But cases only ever very rarely come to light, either because they are settled confidentially or because, for perfectly understandable reasons, victims choose not to pursue action at such a delicate time in their lives. So, although we see these cases every day, they are largely hidden to the outside world. I am glad that this media attention has now allowed space for women to be heard, and to share their experiences more widely.

Although we had previously conducted research exploring the actual events that followed announcing pregnancy and returning from maternity leave in the workplace, this survey looked more closely at how women felt about their experiences, and what they perceived to be happening. We found that working mothers didn't feel as valued in their role, didn't think they were taken seriously at work - especially compared to younger employees without children - and yet 70% of mothers had never made a formal complaint about this unfair treatment.

This post on the Guardian caught my eye, not only because it's typical of the story so often recounted in our client meeting rooms, from a senior high-flyer 'exited' while on maternity leave, but also for the sympathy to her employers and insight shown:

"My job disappeared 'formally' as soon as I hit the 6 month leave mark. I wasn't invited to interview for the new role. I was offered a different role, same salary, no team responsibility, and a less challenging role which - I would suggest - was predominantly admin rather than management.

... I never felt my company did this deliberately. I just think the underlying attitude towards pregnant women in the workplace worked against me, and the culture was there and embedded into the organisation to let it happen. At no point did anyone wonder if I might be a viable member of the senior team on my return from maternity. As a first time mum it was simply assumed I would have other priorities."

Other readers reacted angrily to the concerns expressed by victims, and comments made to our firm on social media channels have emphasised the cost and disruption to employers, particularly if mums need emergency time off. That backlash is characteristic of the knee-jerk attitudinal shift this survey has revealed working mums experience.

Of course employers need staff who will focus on the job, be reliable and meet deadlines. But, as Mumsnetters well know, simply becoming a mother does not equate with becoming less committed to a career. Yet this discriminatory perception only seems to attack women - it doesn't happen to men. Just the reverse in fact. Often men are treated with greater respect in the workplace after becoming fathers, and seen as ready to take on greater responsibility.

Doing without key staff with little notice is difficult for any business, particularly small employers. And yes, new mums (and dads) do sometimes need emergency time off. But so do single employees and those without families. Employers must give real consideration to how to make things work and not simply reject flexible working requests out of hand - the law requires this.

In practice, the benefits to employers of agreeing sensible flexible working can be enormous - often, a degree of loyalty and commitment that no other form of reward or recognition could achieve. Increasingly, flexible working opportunities are not limited to working parents, but adopted by forward-thinking, 'agile' businesses, to attract top talent and enhance profitability.

A successful re-entry back into work is often achieved through careful planning and communication. Anticipating the concerns your employer may have and dealing with these head on in your request for flexible working is as important as the business case. This does not just make it harder for an employer to refuse lawfully. But it also then makes it easier to 'smooth the bump' and work in practice."

Let us know your thoughts, and your own experiences, here on the thread. If you blog about it, don't forget to post your URL.

SofiaVagueara Mon 12-Aug-13 16:12:20

I have just been made redundant by a company who accept flexible working requests to go part time but seem to make every woman who returns part time redundant after a few months. 3 women have gone under these circumstances this year so far including me and I suspect more will follow.

It's very depressing but they offer compromise agreements so they know they won't get sued as most people can't afford to turn them down. It is extremely depressing.

badguider Mon 12-Aug-13 18:40:36

In my opinion it's symptomatic of a wider social phenomenon of wanting to label 'mums' as a group of people who have a shared attitude to life and living and shared concerns and opinions. This is done by politicians, marketers, and companies of all sorts and particularly in relation to work/life balance and childcare.

In my expeirence it is utterly false, there as as many ways of parenting or of being a 'mum' as there are ways of being a child-free young man. 'Mums' are no more of a homogenous group than 'dads' are, or 'young people'.

There is no one model of 'family friendly' and no one model for working after having children.

blueblackdye Mon 12-Aug-13 18:42:08

My ex employer has taken advantage of my mat leave to move my position abroad. Their decision was announced exactly one week after I told them about my second pg. 5 years of commitment and trust were erased by a 5 minute meeting. No other position was offered. We agreed on a compromise agreement after 2 months. As a matter of fact the only women left in the company are single and childless.

TunipTheUnconquerable Mon 12-Aug-13 19:06:50

Yes. <sigh>

Thank you for doing and disseminating this research.

I'm having trouble at work following my maternity leave. I think they would like me to resign and are trying to put as many obstacles in my way as possible. It has ruined the last few months of maternity leave and I have gone from looking forward to go going back to not getting through day to day life without xanax and sleeping pills as a direct result of the stress. And I haven't even gone back yet.

WannaBeCareerWoman Mon 12-Aug-13 20:46:07

Yes, very similar experience to all the above. Frustratingly, I do not even think that they had 'real' worries about how I would perform. They just dismissed it 100% that I would even want to do serious work. They could not comprehend that I would.

I think one of the problems is being able to prove that you're being discriminated against. I felt that if I complained about my experience my company would have been able to justify what they were doing as being for 'legitimate business reasons' and I would then have looked like a paranoid, fuss-making idiot.

GCD Mon 12-Aug-13 21:31:31

Bearing in mind my 3 bosses are female, their understanding and desire to be flexible in non-existent...that is unless you are them. They all work the hours they want, whether it is based from home 2 of the 5 days, or 'work' from home on a Friday HOWEVER when my request is looked at it has been decided apparently that flexible working is not an option, unless I want to take a lesser position with a £15,000 pay reduction and car allowance taken away...what tosh! De-grading to me with 6 years service behind me; narrow minded, selfish women who quite obviously have no respect for anyone unless they can get something out of it.
I was only asking to leave an hour earlier and even offered to 'make up' the hour once DS was in bed.
In this modern world availability can be 24/7 with my clients worldwide not a problem as the west are all up and working.
I declined the lesser position, dug my heels in and if they are looking to get rid of me, the have picked the wrong Mum!

Freemilk Mon 12-Aug-13 21:47:50

Two years ago my ex employer advertised my job 3 months into my maternity leave, gave it to someone else and wrote and told me not to come back.

I thought they were really taking the p&£s when they subsequently wrote and told me the person they had employed wanted an extended holiday before they started and would I like to fill in until that time.

However I realised that was just a warm up since they have subsequently written asking for my maternity pay to be paid back.

My union delayed the case until they had put me out of time.

No redundancy, no pay off no compromise agreement nothing.

I am still looking for a job, I had worked for them for over 5 years.

KnackeredCow Mon 12-Aug-13 21:53:17

My employer has rejected my flexible working request, as well as that of one of my direct reports. The facts he has used to apply the business grounds are inaccurate.

We both feel he is attempting to dismiss us. Nobody has ever been allowed to do my role part time. I've instructed a solicitor who is attempting to negotiate my return, but I am not hopeful. Unfortunately, I'm not a member of a union and do not have LEI with my home insurance, so it's highly unlikely I'll be able to take it much further.

My solicitor informs me that I may have a case for indirect sex discrimination as one of the reasons cited for refusing my flexible working request was that I used to work in excess of my contracted hours.

Unfortunately, the recent charges that have come into effect to lodge a claim for a hearing at industrial tribunal will make it very difficult for those of us on SMP, or in the last 13 weeks of AML to afford to do anything. Sadly, it's cost prohibitive so really employers don't have to worry about complying with legislation.

My conflict with my employer over my return has been ongoing since May and I feel drained. I had twins too, and their entry into the world was traumatic. They were delivered prematurely as I was very unwell. I had severe pre-eclampsia. We all spent a significant amount of time I'm hospital. My boss knows this and I cannot even begin to explain how much I hate him for treating me in the way he is. It's pretty clear that he does not value the contribution I make, or could continue to make by working flexibly.

WannaBeCareerWoman Mon 12-Aug-13 22:15:27

It's making me so sad and angry that women can be treated this way at such a vulnerable time. Why?

TunipTheUnconquerable Mon 12-Aug-13 22:20:30

One thing that really bugs me is the gaslighting - the myth that working mums are all treated fine now. They're really not.

adagio Mon 12-Aug-13 22:26:55

I accepted redundancy when I was 38 weeks pregnant after 13 years service with a company. I was paid maternity in line with my contract but it was paid at once rather than spread over each month as it would have been had I been returning, so from a tax POV it looks like I earned it all in one year.

I am worried about looking for a new job when my "maternity" ends. Not sure how to explain the gap - admit maternity or simply say redundancy followed by a break. I used to work roughly double my (full time) contract hours and I don't really want to have to do that again - I need to forge a new path with some semblance of work life balance, as I now have a life I need to balance the work with. I hope I find it.

blueblackdye Mon 12-Aug-13 22:34:56

When I came back to full time work after my first child, I managed to get flexible hours. Starting at 8 and finishing at 4.20 to catch my train with a lunch break of 20 minutes instead of 30. Normal business hours were 9 to 5.30. My direct boss has always arrived at 9.30 and finishes around 6/6.30. He would always come to me at 4pm with an urgent request that could not wait as he was supposed to have delivered the report 2 days ago to the management team ! On the other side, the MD would move forward a meeting if he wanted me to take part so that I could still catch my train... Both were men and dads. Unfortunately I was not reporting directly to the MD and he was not in the office very often to witness the psychological harassment. I was in the middle management team, supposedly at a key position, everybody was more than happy with my results, but too expensive : they wanted the profit to appear even greener than it was and made me redundant on week 32 of my second pg replacing me with an older childfree woman working from Eastern Europe where labour is less expensive but then my ex direct boss would travel every fortnight over there.
The question is in effect how much do they really save on dismissing me when one takes into account flight, accommodation, subsistence ? They have just shifted and divided the admin costs over several cost centres.

The cherry on the cake was that he asked me to travel to Eastern Europe to train her... I was then 29 week pg !!! Of course I declined. So she came to London all expenses paid for a month.

My solicitor was certain I would win the case but the compensation would not have been worth the stress once I had paid his fees.

The bitterness is still present although my child is now 1yo. But I m now self employed and somehow, this was a good thing.

MrsHoarder Mon 12-Aug-13 22:55:23

Its not just maternity: I suspect that part of the reason I was made redundant was because I was a married woman in my 20s. Then I kept getting rejected on fairly poor grounds at job interviews, I eventually decided I may as well have DC then as waiting for the good of my career clearly wasn't working anyway.

MrsHoarder Mon 12-Aug-13 22:56:11

not just maternity

I mean its not just when women actually get pregnant/start maternity leave.

littlestressy Tue 13-Aug-13 07:54:17

When I returned after mat leave I decided to go back part time. My previous responsibilities were removed from me, no discussion, just taken away. I was ignored in staff meetings, not given any chance to develop my training in ways which had been promised to me before I was pregnant. Basically I felt (and still feel) that because I am now a mother and work part time I'm not as good at my job anymore. This I strongly disagree with.

sleeplessbunny Tue 13-Aug-13 07:59:00

I am lucky enough not to have encountered the discrimination described here, but I do think that employer's attitudes towards "working mums" won't change until men are also seen to be making changes to their lives (and perhaps careers) as a result of becoming a parent. At the moment it is just assumed that it is the mother who will sort the childcare, ask for flexible hours, etc. Officially men have the same rights re. flexible working, but in practise these are very rarely exercised and a man working part-time to care for his kids raises a number of eyebrows.

My DH and I both work a 4day week since we became parents, which works well for us as a family. But the stigma he suffers at work for this is substantial: he has been sidelined into a less desirable role and is refused promotion he had previously been in line for because he isn't taking his career seriously. On the other hand, I have had no difficulties at all, because my working pattern is exactly what is expected of a mother. It has really opened my eyes to the wider issues of stereotyping in the workplace.

I had flexible working before becoming pregnant - luckily I have a great employer. My experience has been slightly different. All parents at my place of work are entitled to flexible working - both mums and dads. The ones who actually take the piss with flexible working are the men, not the women. The women understand that we are lucky to have such a good employer, so the mums tend to knuckle down and work really hard. The men demand their flexible working, even when they don't actually need it, or good be more flexible, and it inconveniences the entire team.

My husband works in an all-male small workforce, and the idea of a man taking any time off for childcare is unheard of. My husband is nervous of asking his boss because of job insecurity.

HandbagCrab Tue 13-Aug-13 08:24:15

Personally I think I do more and I am more effective since becoming a mum. My employers thought the exact opposite and have treated me poorly ever since I announced my pregnancy and continue to do so now ds is a toddler and I'm part time so I am sneered at for my 'long' weekends.

I'm fortunate I find myself in the position I can retrain for a potentially new career, yet I am angry that all the hard work and sacrifice I put into my current career for over a decade was wiped out simply because I became pregnant. Naively, I thought things weren't like that anymore until it happened to me. And then I realised it had happened to lots of women I know who have had children but perhaps don't speak up, as if they feel like I do, they'll feel like it's their own personal failing rather than a shitty employer decision.

WannaBeCareerWoman Tue 13-Aug-13 09:54:25

It's sad how familiar all these stories are. I also thought things like this don't happen any more and was shocked to find out that they do. Ironically, I was prepared to work full time, did not ask for flexi, wanted my career same as ever... (I am lucky that mu mum is happy to take over - she had a career herself.)

But even before I went on maternity they kept on saying "You'll see, you'll change your mind, etc.", I heard that behind my back they were saying that I won't be able to travel and therefore they can't give me responsibility... This is all so ironic as I was as willing to push hard as ever! I think the root is in what Bunny says. Your home situation seems to be everyone's business in that they assume how you will run your life. Even if I left my child with a neighbour whilst travelling it is none of their business! It's invasion of privacy at the most intimate level as far as I am concerned.

Mumsnet what can we do about this? This is one of the most important issues mothers face today.

On a positive note, my husband just approved flexi hours and work from home for a female colleague who is, according to him, really good at what she does. Some bosses are nice <sigh>.

gazzalw Tue 13-Aug-13 10:02:06

do you think this culture is endemic or specific to the City/Private Sector?

TunipTheUnconquerable Tue 13-Aug-13 10:21:35

Oh, it's a total myth that everything is lovely in the public sector. There is more lipservice paid but because everyone is so wedded to the idea that they are the most right-on people ever, it's very difficult to raise issues without being squashed like a beetle.

WannaBeCareerWoman Tue 13-Aug-13 11:20:10

I must correct myself. It wasn't 'nice' of my husband to approve his colleagues flexi time. It was professional.

Professionalism is so highly regarded for most issues - why is no one tackling this issue professionally?

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