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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.

My employers have been great on the whole. Supported through difficult pregnancies and my request to return part time was accepted (with a persuasive business case provided by me)

KIT days not paid but that was my mess up.

The real issue arose when I wanted to develop my career and there are very few part time opportunities in my field - many women are working part time or flexible hours but that is because they returned part time after M/L to their previously full time job.

I'm now full time because otherwise I would be stuck career wise. I really feel part time workers and job shares can and do work brilliantly for individuals and organisations.

WannaBeCareerWoman Thu 15-Aug-13 12:30:15

Hear, hear EliotAusten.

Good to hear some good stories.

AnnieLobeseder Thu 15-Aug-13 13:22:16

Another vicious circle - companies treating women badly when they're pregnant and telling them they'll have to come back to a reduced role, and then complaining that the reason they do this is because women who go on maternity leave either don't come back or aren't fully committed when they do. Err, if you make women who come back from leave feel like a spare part, they're not going to repay you by being a model employee, are they? However, if you treat them like the fully-competent and trained employee they were when they left, then that is what they will continue to be.

Singlemomworking Fri 16-Aug-13 18:09:17

Sadly I have experienced this discrimination first hand. It is shocking and heart breaking that companies continue to punish women for bringing life to the human race.
My story is an light-hearted but sad:


WannaBeCareerWoman Fri 16-Aug-13 21:05:52

I love your blog! I hope you are ok now. Do you have a job?

Tubemole1 Sat 17-Aug-13 07:24:26

I work in the public sector. I have never had a direct female manager.

I was assessed during pg because I work on the railway, but the only thing I was restricted on was lifting heavy loads. I used to work nights, but as my pg went on nights used to make me very ill.

During my ML even though a schedule had been planned between myself and HR for my return one of my managers kept ringing me up asking me what my plans are for when I return.

When I requested FW, that's when the real trouble began. The railway is unionised, but I didn't take a rep during my first interview. I said my nights were no longer an option and offered to transfer to a different role which offered the same pay, yet had more pressure. The manager said he would look into it. Then he wrote me a letter saying I should demote myself on less pay to accommodate my request, which was also only to work late shifts (husband is a postman, and FW is unheard of there).

So I demoted myself and then rang the union, who arranged an appeal. They argued that there was no evidence that my manager investigated the feasibility of my request (insufficient paper/digital trail) and that to refuse my request was unreasonable. The chair of the meeting who was general manager of the line and my managers boss, agreed, and guess what, she's a woman! She saw that if we went to tribunal, a very messy and expensive business, that the company would lose.

So I was sent for retraining, I got the hours I requested. Then when my little girl started school, her GPs retired, and now they are called upon for childcare when we need it.

However, in the past two months a colleague and his partner have been having similar problems to me, and it makes me so angry that attitudes remain. My colleague and his partner both work on the railway. His partner has offered all kinds of flexible working patterns, f/t and p/t, but its fallen on deaf ears. My colleague has also put in a request, but thankfully we now have a more broadminded manager who accepted the request. We keep being told its to do with the "business needs".sad

3mum Sat 17-Aug-13 19:49:02

Some very sad stories here. Even more sadly I am not surprised. I agree with an earlier poster who said that it is all part and parcel of a general approach towards mums. You are letting the side down by daring to have a life outside work even if you always get the job done.

From the moment I went on maternity leave my career (senior professional in a male dominated profession) was never the same again. The men involved were sufficiently sophisticated not to ever be caught out being overtly sexist (mumist?) but I got all the dead end jobs, was given no support whatsoever, was excluded from all the cosy little chats about management matters which meant that whenever I went to a meeting my contribution was irrelevant, received shitty and unfair appraisals - you get the picture. There was one other senior woman in my team. She left because she couldn't take the male ego's any more so I volunteered for my own redundancy because I couldn't bear the thought of being there on my own.

Bitter much - oh yes! I am now self-employed and much happier, but I still fantasise about justice being done sometimes.

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