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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Tue 28-Jul-15 17:13:02

Guest post: Maternity discrimination - "We need a zero tolerance approach"

Jo Swinson considers the research by the European Human Rights Commission which reveals that 54,000 new mothers are being forced out of work every year

Jo Swinson

Former Women and Equalities Minister

Posted on: Tue 28-Jul-15 17:13:02

(8 comments )

Lead photo

"Nearly twice as many women reported experience of pregnancy discrimination as in 2005."

Our economy simply can't afford to lose the talents of 54,000 women a year. Yet that's the number who as a result of pregnancy are sacked, made redundant or treated so badly they leave their job, according to shocking new research published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) last week.

Back in 2013 when I was a minister in the Department for Business, I commissioned this research as part of a wider project to understand and address the barriers faced by pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace, and help employers navigate the law and share best practice on managing and supporting employees.

This research was the first of its kind and scope since 2005 – but the situation has not improved since then. In fact, the data confirms that we're going backwards, with nearly twice as many women reporting experience of pregnancy discrimination.

Vulnerable women, those on low pay, under-25s and single mothers are most likely to experience problems. A brief look on the sadly necessary website PregnantThenScrewed is all that's needed to bring these harsh statistics to life; horror stories of illegal behaviour by employers abound. Being forced out of the workplace is not the only manifestation of discrimination; a small but worrying number of women also reported being put under pressure to miss antenatal appointments, resign or start maternity leave before they were ready.

Delving deeper into the figures reveals that the largest portion of those who left their jobs – 44,000 – did so as a result of poor treatment in the workplace rather than dismissal or redundancy. The employer survey suggested that most businesses have good intentions – yet in almost ten percent of cases they end up driving the woman out of their organisation. It's a huge waste, and costly for businesses in terms of recruitment, training and loss of talent.

A small but worrying number of women reported being put under pressure to miss antenatal appointments, resign or start maternity leave before they were ready.


So is there any chink of light amongst the doom and gloom?

Well, it's good that the research has highlighted the gap between employers' intentions and the reality for a significant proportion of pregnant employees. This should be a wake-up call to businesses, and act as a catalyst for them to improve. It should also ring alarm bells at the Ministry of Justice, which is currently conducting a long overdue review into their implementation of fees for taking cases to employment tribunals. Evidence that shows discrimination on the increase while the number of discrimination tribunal cases has plummeted suggests that access to justice is being impeded by the new fees regime.

What about the role of men here? The research was mostly conducted before the introduction of Shared Parental Leave, which since April 2015 has allowed mothers to share their leave with their partner. While it's unlikely that there will be an immediate revolution of dads taking equal leave, as men begin to take advantage of the scheme we should see a change in workplace conversations and expectations about taking time out of work for caring responsibilities.

It is also worth noting some positive points in the research. 84% of employers said they felt it was in their business interests to support pregnant employees, and the vast majority of women felt their employers willingly supported their needs while pregnant and when returning to work. This is important because it shows there are plenty of successful examples of people and organisations getting it right for others to learn from.

Employers that have had recent experience of a pregnant worker are more positive, both in terms of valuing the contribution of the employee and how they assess the cost to the business. Encouraging employers to share their experiences could help to reassure others.

The research shows that many employers are worried about what they should and shouldn't ask, and how often they should get in touch during maternity leave. For small businesses in particular, they may not frequently experience an employee becoming pregnant - for many it will be their first time. When they are in this learning process, the availability of clear, simple, practical advice is vital. Government has a key role to play here, and I'm glad to see the EHRC has produced an employer toolkit to answer questions and provide useful information.

Dialogue is key to getting it right, not least because a one-size-fits-all policy doesn't work. Every pregnancy is different, and so is the way it will impact a woman's job; employers must be mindful of this.

We need a zero tolerance approach to discrimination, and a maximum support approach to employers - to get them talking with employees so they can get it right in a way that works for everyone.

By Jo Swinson

Twitter: @joswinson

Flingingmelon Tue 28-Jul-15 22:46:06

The government might want to think about the fact that it costs about £30,000 to bring a discriminatory employer to tribunal. Obviously it goes with out saying that not so many have that lying around, especially as even if you win there is no guarantee that you can recover those costs.

Why should an immoral employer bother supporting pregnant staff and those returning after mat leave when the chances of being taken to court are pretty slim?

Buenostar Tue 28-Jul-15 23:02:21

Flinging - that's so depressing sad I know of so many people who were forced out in one way or another. Women really are second class citizens still sad

Flingingmelon Wed 29-Jul-15 08:38:16

Mothers are absolutely second class citizens. It's why I'm also really annoyed that the new Women and Equality Commission have chosen to concentrate on transgender politics. I absolutely believe the transgender community needs positive support and legislation, but as a women's commission there are much larger groups of women who need just as much of their political attention.

Athenaviolet Wed 29-Jul-15 08:44:29

It needs to be criminalised.

The whole of society is paying the price for these illegal actions. Civil remedies aren't working.

BumpPending Wed 29-Jul-15 19:29:38

Have name changed.

In my last pregnancy I suffered as an employee working for a small business. I was told that maternity leave wasn't really going to work for them and that there wouldn't be a job for me if I took time off. Consequently I had a ridiculously short maternity leave.

I'm newly pregnant and had just finalised negotiation for a new role. It was all finalised and I felt I had to be honest due to various plans they were making, and told them I was pregnant (which I didn't know at the time of either interview). I then received a phone call saying due to circumstances they were withdrawing the job offer.

There is nothing I can do!

It doesn't bode well for this pregnancy as, although I'm not working for the same company before, no woman has managed to take maternity, return and stay employed - and none have left voluntarily ...

bobgoblin23 Thu 30-Jul-15 11:45:11

I am going through the adoption process at the moment. I have been with my employer 10 months. The adoption agency require a employer's reference before the allow you to progress to stage 2 of the assessment process. My employer got the refence request and then promptly invited me to a disciplinary hearing, they dont like my management style. I have no legal protection against discrimination, I'm not pregnant. And now that I dont have a job, the adoption application has been put on hold by the agency because our financial situation is no longer viable. This sucks, all parents to be should receive the same legal protection regardless of fertility status.

employmentlawexpert Thu 30-Jul-15 21:42:55

Message deleted by MNHQ. Here's a link to our Talk Guidelines.

GastroBabyUK Wed 05-Aug-15 07:41:15

Have been very fortunate with my employer that they have a good maternity package for long-standing employees, but have a friend who has has the exact same problem.
She has been forced to change her role to more of a temporary one with no chance of real advance and a much slower career path just for having 2 children at a small company. I understand that small companies may be financially strapped but they could certainly do more to work with their employees to give them the time off they need but maybe get advice on training a junior who can help at a lower rate of pay during a fair duration of leave. No?

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