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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Wed 03-Dec-14 11:21:02

Guest post: Frances O'Grady - 'Pregnant women are still incredibly vulnerable at work'

A TUC report published yesterday reveals that pregnant women are still subject to discrimination in the workplace - here, General Secretary Frances O'Grady says it's high time that employers started valuing mothers. Do share your experiences on the thread.

Frances O'Grady

General Secretary, TUC

Posted on: Wed 03-Dec-14 11:21:02

(16 comments )

Lead photo

'We need to remove barriers to women enforcing their rights'

Whilst at times it seems as if our society is evolving at breakneck speed, there are also those moments when it feels as though the clocks have stopped, and we're stuck in a bygone era when starting a family spelled the end of paid work for women. It's 40 years since legislation was introduced protecting women from being fired the moment they announced their happy news to their employer, yet research and anecdotal evidence suggest that many women are still incredibly vulnerable in the workplace when pregnant or on maternity leave.

The TUC has recently carried out its own research, speaking to female union members about their experiences of pregnancy discrimination, and our findings have been pretty shocking. The first thing to say about pregnancy discrimination is that it comes in many ugly guises. Most people would recognise a woman losing her job because she was pregnant as discrimination but, as our report highlights, there are many other ways in which women are discriminated against in pregnancy, from being passed over for promotion to being exposed to hazardous chemicals or being made to lift heavy boxes without a risk assessment.

From our conversations with women about their experiences, we were able to identify some common themes: loss of job; bullying and unwelcome comments; paid time off for antenatal appointments refused; dangerous or hazardous work; promotion opportunities blocked; disciplinary action for pregnancy-related illness; redundancy; refusal to accommodate requests for family friendly hours; problems continuing breastfeeding at work; loss of pay and benefits.

On top of this, new figures from Maternity Action show us that cuts to pregnancy and child related benefits amount to a staggering £1.5bn– so women can ill afford to take a cut to their salaries or to be squeezed out of the workplace altogether.

Of course, statistics only tell part of the story. Women's voices are what bring our research to life and show the real impact of discrimination on people's lives. One woman told us that “I was handed my notice at 6 months pregnant. I had to fight redundancy hard with the aid of my union and I was eventually offered a job two grades lower than the one I was on, and for £10,000 less salary.”

I was handed my notice at 6 months pregnant. I had to fight redundancy hard with the aid of my union and I was eventually offered a job two grades lower than the one I was on, and for £10,000 less salary.


Another woman told us she was “shouted at and sworn at for being in the toilet with morning sickness”. One woman was asked to make her midwife appointments on a Saturday. Another said she suffered from bullying and harassment and had to “plead to get time off for antenatal appointments”.

Last year, Mumsnet collaborated with the brilliant Everyday Sexism project to collate examples of pregnancy discrimination which had been posted on the #everydaysexism website. The same themes crop up as those identified in the TUC report and the testimonies from women are equally shocking, if not more so. One woman reported that “[I] was told by my boss to have an abortion or resign as my colleague was pregnant first and “two pregnant workers was unfair”.

All of this is just the tip of the iceberg. The Equal Opportunities Commission estimated back in 2004 that 30,000 women per year are forced out of their jobs because of pregnancy discrimination and there's no reason to believe that the picture has improved. The number of employment tribunal claims for unfair dismissal and suffering a detriment because of pregnancy rose by one fifth from 2008 to 2013, with more than 9,000 women taking their employer to tribunal. Yet we know that this represents just a tiny proportion of the total number of women who have experienced this type of discrimination – earlier research found that only three per cent of women who lost their jobs due to pregnancy discrimination made a complaint to tribunal. With the introduction of employment tribunal fees, the number of women taking action against employers who discriminate against them has dropped even further.

So what needs to be done to improve the situation? Getting employers to recognise and monitor the problem would be a good starting point. The TUC is calling on employers to publish information on how many women employees return to work after having children and, crucially, how many are still in post a year later.

Fathers must be part of the solution too. New research from the NCT finds that many fathers really want to spend more time at home with their children, yet the current statutory paternity pay is a paltry £138 per week - 40 per cent lower than the National Minimum Wage for a full time worker - which makes it unaffordable for many fathers to take the time off they'd like to when they have a new baby. Decent paternity pay and a dedicated period of “use it or lose it” paternity leave would go some way towards creating more shared parenting and would encourage employers to think about how they accommodate both men and women who need time out of the workplace when they become parents. Similarly, more flexible working for both men and women is crucial if we want to allow parents to hold on to their jobs and to balance work and family life more equitably.

Employers also need to learn lessons from pregnancy and maternity discrimination cases brought against them. Too often, poor practice becomes embedded. Tribunals should be given the power to make enforceable recommendations that an employer should change their practices following a finding of discrimination.

Crucially, we need to remove barriers to women enforcing their rights. Rights aren't worth a lot if they're not enforced. Abolishing employment tribunal fees would be a huge step in the right direction. While not all women will want to go through the stress of an employment tribunal when they're already going through the major upheaval of having a baby, some will, and fees are acting as a big (£1,200 to be precise) barrier to them accessing justice.

Employers need to drag themselves into the 21st century and start valuing mothers in the workplace – true equality is impossible until they do.

By Frances O'Grady

Twitter: @FrancesOGrady

Alizzle Wed 03-Dec-14 14:55:12

I used to work for a big communications company as an engineer. It was a male dominated environment. When I became pregnant my manager still expected me to climb and lift heavy ladders. I fought this and ended up on 'light duties' which still involved climbing travelling ladders, over-stretching and soldering. I was also made to feel like I wasn't working fast or hard enough and this period was also taken into account when after I returned to work I was forced to take a payment and leave rather then hold on for nothing. I returned to work when my son was 5 months old, I'd had a pretty traumatic birth, and pnd but wasn't supported or asked at all how I was during my maternity leave. Infact my manager changed during this time and I was unaware. I had a work place assessment which decided due to the birth I no longer had the strength to do my job and was offered call centre work below my pay or to leave. I'm glad I left but wish I'd fought more at the time.

skyra13 Wed 03-Dec-14 15:07:41

I started a job last April and was told I be kept on after the summer my contract will be renewed and I will be moved to another section of the company when summer season ended. The same for the other women who worked with me.
I had to tell them I had fallen pregnant due to heavy lifting sometimes at work.
The end of summer came and we both got told they would extend our contracts still end of October but we will be let go after as they didn't have any hours we were both on 0 hour contracts.
So they let us go but turns out they never did end the contract for the other women an she has now been offered hours while I have received my p45.
I believe that if I wasn't pregnant I would still have my job.

So I am now currently looking for jobs I can't hide my tummy being 22 weeks pregnant, I either get told no you'r not right for this job when they see me, sometimes I don't get a reply at all after interviews and at my latest interview I was told I was a health and safety hazard! sad

skinnyamericano Wed 03-Dec-14 17:06:22

It still sounds fairly commonplace for women to be discriminated against at work.

I was demoted and stripped of my car and bonus package whilst pregnant - made to feel almost criminal for having a baby. Then whilst on maternity leave, I was invited to a family 'fun' day where I was snubbed by the management team.

Fortunately I didn't have to go back to work immediately, so took the time to find another job. The whole experience was embarrassing and demeaning.

LivingForTheWeekend Wed 03-Dec-14 20:40:35

This sounds horribly familiar.

I was told I wasn't allowed to take time off for antenatal appointments, but I checked this out & advised my manager I was entitled to take 'reasonable time'. They were then going to allow me only the appointment time but no travel time... I contacted HR & linked them to the ECHR page on the subject & offered to get someone from ACAS or something, to talk it through to clarify issues, strangely they backed down after that. I believe they are still pulling the same crap on other women though.

When I was about 3-4 months pregnant, I told my manager that when I came back to work, I'd potentially like to change my work hours, either to work a compressed week, or to cut back to part-time. Manager promised to take it to the dept manager & get back to me, this never happened. I chased it up a number of times. Went on mat leave, chased it up when manager visited me after the birth, manager promised to chase it up. I went to the CAB & found out I could afford to cut back to part-time, applied for reduced hours about 3 months before the end of my mat leave, work lost my application but my manager kept assuring me it was ok, we were in weekly contact. A couple of days before I was due back, I got a phone call, saying I was in breach of contract as I'd not signed something, which they'd never sent me, they admitted this. All this time DH & I were literally starving, missing meals for days on end as I was still technically full time employed, DH was unemployed, & we qualified for no benefits. Our household income was my statutory maternity pay, & child benefit. DH got nothing as he was on ESA of zero based on my 'full-time' wage. My manager knew all this & did sod all about it.

I am extremely bitter about the whole thing. As you can probably tell! grin

Cherriesandapples Wed 03-Dec-14 22:10:47

I went for a job when pregnant. I was told I didn't get it as wasn't good enough. A couple of years later I talked with the person who did get it - they did not have essential skills for the job or the required experience - I had I challenged at the time I would have probably won a tribunal however I didn't and the time limit had expired.

pigsmightnevercease Wed 03-Dec-14 23:33:55

When I was pg with DS1, I worked for a medium-sized global firm. My male boss:

- was grumpy and obstructive about my attending antenatal appointments
- told me that I could request a risk assessment if I wanted, while makimg it clear he thought it was utterly ridiculous, so I felt too intimidated to ask
- piled work on me so thst I regularly worked 10-12 hour days
- referred to me constantly as being 'in a delicate condition', despite not taking a single day off sick during the whole pregnancy - he once introduced me in this way on a global conference call with senior colleagues angry
- announced in a meeting that my maternity cover was 'a man, so he won't go off and get pregnant' (as it turned out, he left after two weeks because he couldn't hack the workload)

I now believe that dreading going back to work for him contributed to the PND I suffered during my maternity leave.

I applied for flexible working (two days off a month) which he grudgingly granted, but pointed out that I wouldn't be covered for those days and would be expected to keep up with the workload nevertheless.

Luckily I got a better offer (from my current company) at the end of mat leave, so I was able to tell him where to stick his job grin

On a more positive note, my current company hired me straight from mat leave, matching my salary and my flexible working request, and covering me on my days off. When I was pg with DS2, they couldn't have been more suportive. They promoted me during mat leave, and have had blinds put up in one of the meeting rooms especially so I can express smile

30somethingm Thu 04-Dec-14 00:55:33

Out of interest do any of you feel that you have to choose between having a career or starting a family?

LivingForTheWeekend Thu 04-Dec-14 10:26:13

Yes. I can only think of one woman at my company that has retained her management position, after she returned from maternity leave - she went back 3 months after birth & works extremely long hours. Almost every other mother, including former managers, have had to accept demotion as a managerial role is apparently incompatible with part time working. All managers have to do frequent unpaid overtime at very short notice, and go on occasional trips, both of which would make childcare very tricky.

Alizzle Thu 04-Dec-14 20:54:18

I feel that I did have to choose as all the opportunities available after I had ds seemed unsuitable as they were too much travel etc. but that was my choice. I'm now working for a lovely (big) company for 5 hours a week and will have the opportunity to expand my hours when and if I wish to. They are completely flexible with the arrangement as dh works from home and looks after ds while I'm at work but I have no pressure any more. It's in my contract to cover at other branches of the company but they have accommodated me asking not to.

PuffinsAreFictitious Thu 04-Dec-14 22:26:02

All managers have to do frequent unpaid overtime at very short notice, and go on occasional trips, both of which would make childcare very tricky.

Just not for male managers with children, it would appear!

The overt discrimination starts when a woman dares to be pregnant in employment and get worse when she goes back to work after having her child. If that child turns out to have a disability, you may as well hand in your notice. Men don't seem to have these problems, odd that hmm

uutiric Sun 07-Dec-14 22:28:31

I know someone pregnant who just calls in "sick" to work whenever she fancies a day off even if she is fine. She knows because she is pregnant she is immune and can't get wrong no matter what she does.

springalong Mon 08-Dec-14 10:53:39

This is a very strong article with many good points. My real issues began on return to work after maternity leave. Due to restructuring I had moved departments - day before I was due back they phoned to say there was not a desk for me and I must take a days leave. The new part-time role had not been well thought through at all - and, in documents submitted in defence of the grievance I finally filed, management stated that they would see how it went. After 3 months I was demoted (not salary luckily) and then after a further 6 months I was advised that I was not performing and there was no job for me. I did file a grievance which was upheld in part after months of very stressful pressure. Outcome of grievance - nothing. I was working for a large international company who win awards for family friendly environment (usually the awards where companies self nominate). It is appalling.

BreakingDad77 Mon 08-Dec-14 15:12:57

What I find most shocking is where I hear stories of females who have had kids, treat pregnant women so badly ("I was never morning sick", get over it etc) and treat them as if they are idiots when they come back to the workplace. What are the predominantly female HR depts doing to look after their sisters?

LivingForTheWeekend Mon 08-Dec-14 19:36:18

All managers have to do frequent unpaid overtime at very short notice, and go on occasional trips, both of which would make childcare very tricky.

Just not for male managers with children, it would appear!

Indeed. I actually know/have known of quite a few managers with youngs DCs. Almost without exception, the men's hours remain the same, the women almost invariably go down to part-time after maternity leave. Which, as I mentioned above, generally means bye-bye promotion prospects.

I don't know if that says more about the culture of the company I work for, or the people who work there. It's just what happens.

RedditArmie Tue 09-Dec-14 07:31:19

Now she can be assaulted without repercussions! Genius

BreakingDad77 Tue 09-Dec-14 10:16:06

DW got a lot of crap from her female manager (who has two kids) complaining about the assessment visits we had to make every fortnight because DW had gestational diabetes and needed checks on the baby.

Within health and safety 'Young persons' and 'Pregnant women' are specfic cases which need specific risk assessments carried out on all the work tasks they are expected to undertake.

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