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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.

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.

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

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

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

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:


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.

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

Hear, hear EliotAusten.

Good to hear some good stories.

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.

LegoCaltrops Thu 15-Aug-13 07:07:30

My company initially refused to let me have time off for maternity appointments. I told my manager I was entitled to it, she wouldn't budge. I contacted ACAS who said I was entitled to it plus reasonable travel time, so I went to HR. They wouldn't budge. It was only when I said I would actually have to get ACAS toget involved that they backed down.

I told my manager when I was 16 weeks pregnant that I would probably need part time or different hours when I came back & asked her to look into what would be best, I outlined what I needed & said I was happy to work within that. Nothing happened. I reminded her several more times as the months went on. One week before I was due to go back to work I got a call from HR demanding I send them an email there & then to confirm my new hours. I was sick of chasing them & had rung & emailed loads to chase them.

Now I'm back at work I'm officially in the same role, albeit part time by my own choice. However in practice I don't actually do the same job, I've not had any refresher training so my ability to work is now limited as there were a lot of system & procedural changes last year. I am continuing to push for training though. It's a shame as I am the most experienced team member by several years & I used to do a hell of a lot of overtime, if they treated me & other parents fairly I'd be more inclined to want to go back full time in a few years. As it is, I really don't.

There are quite a lot of women with young children where I work, however they almost all work part time. Salaries aren't sufficient to allow for full time child care unless you are a manager (and frankly I would prefer to spend some time with my DD, not a company I've worked for, for nearly a decade, who treated me and other parent so badly.) The vast majority of women do go back part time, & most managers are downgraded to being a normal team member, as being part time is not compatible with being a team manager. I know I'm not the only one who has suffered at this company but I am very stubborn & my lovely DH spent hours researching employment law for me. Sadly giving up work for this company is not am option at present as DH is unemployed but I would dearly love to tell them where to shove their job.

NapaCab Thu 15-Aug-13 05:20:00

Based on my experience working in the UK, the tribunal system means that UK employees who become pregnant have the worst of both worlds. There isn't the strong protection for pregnant women that exists in countries like Germany but there aren't the legal options available to women that exist in the US either.

If you have discrimination issues with your employer in the UK, you are stuck with the pathetically weak tribunal system.

The pay-outs are tiny for all except the most egregious and strongly supported cases and you have to take a claim within 3 months of the events happening, which scuppers a lot of pregnant women's cases as often you are heavily pregnant by then and preoccupied with that.

In my case, my employer mysteriously decided that my job was no longer required just as I hit my second trimester and had started announcing it. I was literally called into the director's office out of the blue one Friday morning and told it was likely my job was no longer required and I would be advised to take voluntary redundancy.

I immediately raised a grievance and got legal advice and fought to get a settlement. My employer had no regard for my health or wellbeing, the impact on my future career or even just basic respect for the fact that as a pregnant woman their victimization would have a much worse impact on me than anyone else.

In the US, I could have sued them for harassment, damage to future earnings, risk to professional reputation as well as plain sex discrimination for a significant sum. In Germany, I would never have been considered for redundancy as it is illegal for pregnant women to be made redundant.

As it was, I had to make do with whatever my lawyer could argue for, a good sum but nowhere near the compensation required for the level of stress and anxiety caused to me by the whole experience. The UK system encourages abuse of employees' rights and sex discrimination because employers have little fear of the tribunal system. The only thing holding most employers back is risk to their professional reputation and fear of hassle. Smaller firms don't care about that so women working for smaller firms face a high probability that their maternity rights will not be respected. There is nothing to stop any firm from bullying a pregnant woman or woman on maternity leave into 'opting' for voluntary redundancy. It became apparent to me in the course of my own case, that there are employment law firms operating that specifically advise organizations like my former employer to 'encourage' undesirable employees (old, sick, pregnant, etc) into voluntary redundancy through pressure tactics. And yet the UK government still thinks that employment law is too strong, apparently...

Rainiesmile175 Thu 15-Aug-13 01:03:02

When I announced my pregnancy to my employers I was placed in a completely different environment as they "didn't know what to do with me" I complained but this fell on deaf ears. I was later told that I was "out of sight and out of mind" I work in an entirely male environment and they were truly glad I was out of the way. On return from maternity leave and after intensive re-training I was told that I should "learn my place again" and that I'd had too much time off to just fit back in. I have since been involved in a disciplinary case about my disgraceful treatment. Why this had to happen I don't know but without complaining we won't get anywhere.

Bumblebzz Wed 14-Aug-13 23:03:42

I also want to add my positive experience. I was interviewing at my now employer when I told them I was pregnant, I did not want to accept a job offer without telling them. They were great and confirmed the job offer still held. After one year's mat leave I requested a 3 day week which was approved, I upped it to 4 days a week(one day from home) after a while. When I suffered a miscarriage my managers could not have been more supportive, and actually insisted on reducing my workload for a few weeks after my return. I am changing my hours again to flex around school hours and we have worked out an arrangement that works for both employer and me. My employer is a City bank notorious for high expectations of its staff, but I feel as a working mother I could not be anywhere better. My career has not suffered significantly (obviously working part time slows down progress for a few years). It is so short-termist of companies to treat women poorly around maternity, we will be working for 50 years, a few gaps over just a few years is but a drop in the ocean in terms of our overall working lives, and as others have said, immense loyalty can be earned by treating maternity leavers and returners well.

IceNoSlice Wed 14-Aug-13 21:38:09

To offer my bit, in response to the query about whether the discrimination described is a city/financial sector thing.

I am a pretty experienced middle grade in a professional services firm (financial sector but outside London). I have just returned from maternity leave. I may be speaking rather too soon, but so far I have been very impressed with my employers. I felt valued during my pregnancy and was given tasks I would have had before, but with les demanding travel. My contact during pregnancy was just right (felt connected but under no pressure). The senior members of my team have emphasised they are very happy to have me back, discussed my career progression opportunities and immediately given me a pretty high profile project (which I hope I do well at!).

Even when telling the bosses that I am pregnant again immediately upon coming back, they have been supportive.

I put this down to the smallish team I work in and the 4 bosses. The wider firm has good policies and procedures, including a confidential transition coaching initiative and a mentoring scheme. However it is down to the individual managers to make your return positive or not.

Right now I am feeling very lucky. I really hope it stays that way. And it will certainly incentivise me to work hard and show loyalty to my employer.

Bambamb Wed 14-Aug-13 19:49:00

Some very depressing stories here. Just to lighten it up a bit I just want to say not all companies are like this, there are some good ones out there that the others could learn a lot from.
In the last couple of years I have had a fair bit of last minute time off due to a sick child. I've also had more sick time than I've ever had due to some miscarriages. My manager has been amazing, has not put any pressure on me at all and has agreed a flexible working pattern to help out. He is a family man himself and really understands, but the ethos in the office is generally very flexible. I work in an office full of men in a male dominated profession. I'm about to go on maternity leave and have had several good chats about my career progression when I return. I feel very lucky.

KateSMumsnet (MNHQ) Wed 14-Aug-13 17:14:01


Someone upthread asked what mumsnet could do about it. Here's one small thing:-

The Science and Technology Committee is holding an inquiry into women in academic STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers and seeks written submissions by noon on Tuesday 3 September 2013.

Details are here

The list of questions they want answered includes lots of the stuff that's been appearing in this thread.

It'd be great if mumsnet could start a thread to collate feedback and then submit something to the inquiry - mumsnet seems to have some political clout nowadays!

Thanks for suggesting this ziptoes - unfortunately, with it being August and so many people being away, plus our up coming campaigns taking up a lot of time, we're stretched a bit thin at HQ. However, you're very welcome to start your own thread?

EliotAusten Wed 14-Aug-13 16:32:36

The blog falls into the same trap, though, by ultimately defining the issue as one of flexible working, therefore reinforcing the notion that motherhood means change for the employer. This is the exact discrimination many working mothers are up against. Framing the issue entirely in terms of needing accommodation for alternative working arrangements is not helpful. There should be an assumption that nothing will change, unless and until the specific employee comes to her employer to discuss a mutually beneficial flexible working arrangement.

MrsMymble Wed 14-Aug-13 14:28:02

Agree the public sector is just as bad. My post in a large teaching hospital was downgraded while I was on maternity leave. I didn't complain at the time as to be honest I was completely blindsided by it. Before I had children I thought such sexism had disappeared and women were actually treated equally to men. How naive could I have been?! Prior to me announcing my pregnancy my bosses had been floating the idea of me taking a secondment to a more senior post. All that vanished as soon as I got pregnant. In the end I elected not to go back - my pay would have been protected but I would still essentially have been demoted. When I took maternity leave with my last child (different employer) I took less than six months off just to avoid getting screwed over.

MissBeehiving Wed 14-Aug-13 10:04:29

In my own bitter experience, if you request flexible working, then you might as well spend your working hours with a large sign around your neck stating "I'm not interested in career progression, please don't take me seriously".

Ironically the women who work flexibly (with children) in my team are far more flexible and accommodating than many others. They have a real desire to make it work for the team and the organisation.

I remember coming back for mat leave (no contact about return) and not being able to get in the door because the code had changed. I then went to my office to find someone else occupying it. And this is public sector.

WannaBeCareerWoman Wed 14-Aug-13 09:18:45

Sounds good Ziptoes.

JanePlanet Wed 14-Aug-13 08:00:30

I am a temporary contract researcher at a Russell Group University. My contract was going to be extended; however, when I told them I was pregnant they told me that 'because you are pregnant' this would no longer be happening.

KnackeredCow Tue 13-Aug-13 23:03:32

Tallwuvglasses your post certainly reminded me of how I was treated when pregnant. My boss kept telling me about employee x and employee y who'd had straightforward pregnancies. It was obvious he thought I was making my tiredness and sickness up - I was signed off for three weeks. My obstetrician and GP recommended that I work reduced hours after that, and my obstetrician was particularly concerned (my pregnancy was high risk because I was expecting twins). My boss said he'd reduce my pay so I struggled on with f/t hours against medical advice. My employer NEVER undertook a risk assessment.

I ended up taking annual leave at 29+2 and maternity leave at 30+5 as I just couldn't cope any longer. I was still being sick and I had SPD. I was hospitalised at 33+2 and delivered prematurely at 34+6 by emergency c- section. I had severe pre-eclampsia.
My blood pressure on day of delivery was 197/110. At the start of my pregnancy it had been 120/60 ish and gradually crept up.

It is so sad that employers seem to think you are making it up if you have a tough pregnancy.

Freemilk I completely agree with you. I've worked for the public and private sectors, and the "third" (charity) sector.

tallwivglasses Tue 13-Aug-13 22:25:18

DD, while pregnant was told (by her female boss who'd just returned from maternity leave) that she couldn't possibly still be suffering from morning sickness and couldn't take a break. Poor DD threw up at her desk.

She was doing 12 hour shifts followed by days off that she was really struggling with on top of a 45 minute bus journey in winter and she was exhausted. She asked if she could work the same number of hours but spread across the week and they refused. She had to go on maternity leave far earlier than she wanted to. I hate that company. Thank god she got a different, lovely job before she had to go back.

ziptoes Tue 13-Aug-13 21:19:41

Someone upthread asked what mumsnet could do about it. Here's one small thing:-

The Science and Technology Committee is holding an inquiry into women in academic STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers and seeks written submissions by noon on Tuesday 3 September 2013.

Details are here

The list of questions they want answered includes lots of the stuff that's been appearing in this thread.

It'd be great if mumsnet could start a thread to collate feedback and then submit something to the inquiry - mumsnet seems to have some political clout nowadays!

Freemilk Tue 13-Aug-13 20:57:29

Not restricted to city/financial at all I had a senior role in a large NHS trust, my employer had apparently done the exact same thing previously. If anything maybe if is more prevalent in the state sector, after all there is no one else I can work for so I think there is quite a 'they can do whatever they like' attitude' and get away with it, my city friends who suddenly left jobs after having children (so presumably the same thing happened) have generally got another job fairly easily (and the majority on here -past threads too seem to have been made redundant or given a compromise agreement)

AnnieLobeseder Tue 13-Aug-13 20:39:19

I agree with sleepingbunny - the assumption is that a woman returning to work will spend all day being woolly-brained thinking only of what to cook Jr for tea and longing to be home with him instead of at work. There is never the assumption that she will return to her role as equally committed and competent as she left it.

Whereas the fatherhood status of men is ignored.

BUT: the attitudes of businesses reflect what goes on at home and vice versa. It's usually assumed within the business and the family that a) the woman will take all the parental leave instead of both parents sharing it 50/50 as they are entitled, b) that the woman will be the one having to clock-watch and leave jobs unfinished as she has to drop off and collect the children from childcare and c) the woman will be the one rushing home/staying home when Jr is ill/has an inset day.

If the woman speaks out at home to ask her partner to drop his hours/do collections from childcare/take a day off, she is told that his boss will look very badly on such a request. Which is often true. However, the woman's boss is unlikely to look on her requests in a more favourable light. So if a career has to suffer, by default, it is usually the woman's.

Because at the end of the day, women's careers are still seen as secondary to men's.

It's a vicious circle of self-fulfilling prophecy. Chicken and egg.

What we need is a split of parental leave when men have to take part of it or it's lost. This may negatively impact on some families in the short term, but in the long term, it needs to made to be equally expected that men will take extended leave/have to go home early to collect from childcare/need to work flexibly and most importantly, work part-time.

belleandsebastian Tue 13-Aug-13 17:51:35

New mums not women

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