Everyday Sexism Project's findings on maternity discrimination

The Everyday Sexism Project has received hundreds of reports from women of maternity discrimination in the workplace.

The reports they have received suggest that the problem is deeply ingrained and manifests in a wide variety of different ways. Discrimination can begin long before a woman has even considered starting a family and impacts on women even if they have no intention of becoming, or are unable to get, pregnant. The repercussions are many and severe, often having a lasting impact on a woman's career.

Below is a breakdown of the most common types of experience, with quotes from Everyday Sexism Project entries to illustrate the problem.


Experiences of maternity discrimination

The first experience of maternity discrimination is often at interview, before many candidates have even considered starting a family. Hundreds of women report being asked whether they are planning a family at interview stage, even in many cases when it is a first job and they are not even thinking of pregnancy – they are still marked as and considered a 'risk' by potential future employers.

"I was asked in a job interview if I was planning on getting married or pregnant. Didn't want to waste money training me."

"First interview after school. Was told by male boss to promise never to get pregnant if he hired me."

"I'm 21 and being asked at job interviews if I'm getting married, or pregnant. Pretty sure this is illegal."

"I went for a job near London Bridge and was told: 'We try to avoid hiring woman as they have a nasty habit of getting pregnant and going off on maternity leave'."

"In a job interview I was asked if there was any chance I might get myself pregnant as they couldn't afford maternity leave."

"During a job interview at a mayor management consulting firm, I was asked by a senior executive if I plan to have kids someday. Disbelieving what I've heard, I told him I wasn't sure and that I would make this decision latter in my life, but this shouldn't have any relevance in our interview. Not satisfied, this senior executive replied: 'I honestly don´t believe in hiring women. It is a really high investment of money and time that will get lost when you get pregnant and decide to become a housewife'."

"I was being interviewed for a job (2 male interviewers) and asked openly whether I was planning to have children and when (I was 32 at the time). I decided to be honest and told them that my husband I wanted to start a family in the next 18 months. I was invited back for a 2nd interview, this time with one of the original interviewers and the head of HR (female). The male interviewer (my new boss) said 'I know you're planning to start a family in the next 18 months, but if you decide to take this job I'd like you to wait at least 2 years'. The HR lady told him off but didn't stop him pressing for a response."

Many reports described this idea of 'maternity risk' being used to make discriminatory decision against female candidates.

"Myself and my female business partner were turned down for a contract last week as we're too much of a 'pregnancy risk'."

"Boss suggests we take the male candidate, as the more suitable female one is likely to go on Maternity."

"My old line manager (male) was open about the fact that he was reluctant to hire women in their late 20's who were in a relationship, as they would be 'likely' to want maternity leave."

"An acquaintance was recently bemoaning the difficulties he's been facing in his efforts to fill a vacancy in his company. Apparently, the only suitable applicant was a 31 year old, married, childless woman - too much of a maternity risk. So the job stands empty and sexism in the workplace thrives. How utterly deflating."

Even when they have secured a job, women still often face vocal doubts about their status as a 'baby risk' due to their age and sex, and often not related to anything they themselves have said about wanting to start a family.

"I recently found out that the company I work for considered not hiring me because I am early to mid-30s and in a relationship and therefore (they decided) likely to have children."

"I have just been told that the reason my post has never been made permanent is the spectre of maternity leave. I have been in the post 16 years with no employee rights, which my male colleagues all enjoy."

"I am in line for a promotion at work as a Clinical Director at a counselling agency. The Executive Director, a male (called me into his office) and wanted to discuss my interest in the position. While detailing the position's responsibilities he stated: 'I'm not sure whether this is the best time for you to be thinking about this job because you are in your childbearing years and subsequent maternity leaves would not be good for agency continuity'."

When they did fall pregnant, some women reported difficulty arranging maternity leave, or even found their jobs being terminated outright. Many of these were cases where there was no option to report to human resources. Often they were women working in the service industry (such as waitresses), where there was nobody to whom they could complain; they reported not considering a tribunal as a realistic option. During the period of pregnancy before going on maternity leave, many women reported being taken less seriously, or discriminated against.

"Being told to have a termination of a pregnancy by previous employer even though having been there three years they ''couldn't afford the maternity pay'."

"Told by my boss to have an abortion or resign as my colleague was pregnant first & 2 pregnant workers was unfair"

"Was disappointed to hear someone at work not want to announce her pregnancy for fear of response from the manager regarding the inconvenience of maternity leave."

"Friend of mine works in a law firm, recently got pregnant. They're hiring for her replacement. She won't have a job after. (She will get pay but they're looking to not keep her job open for her after her maternity leave.)"

"'You're pregnant so it's not really worth sending you on that training as you'll forget it by the time you're back from maternity leave'."

"Refused the opportunity to go on training that was open to anyone as 'you're going on maternity leave soon and would forget it all'. Somehow I managed to return and do my job as well - if not better - than before, but the training has never been offered again."

Many women reported inappropriate comments and sexual harassment related to their possible or actual pregnancy. This sometimes extended into inappropriate comments about their personal and sex lives. These were not only distressing and difficult to deal with in and of themselves, but also often undermined their position within the workplace and made them feel unsupported and marked out for ridicule.

"Wedding 5 years ago I was given a present by boss in front of colleagues of condoms so I 'didn't go on maternity leave'. It was a staff meeting before my leave, given a wrapped up box as a 'present' from the Managing Director. The HR manager bought them!"

"Shortly after telling work about my pregnancy, my (male) boss helpfully advised me to not come into work with 'leaky boobs'."

"When I got pregnant one of my bosses remarked to a colleague 'are her tits even bigger now?'"

"My boss didn't want me to see any men because I might get pregnant and go on maternity leave."

"Regularly through my pregnancy [my boss] would comment on how 'large' I was getting and then when returned after maternity leave, the first thing he said to me was, 'good to see you looking back to normal'"

"When I returned to work after getting married one of my bosses scoffed 'I suppose you will be leaving us soon to have a baby' and then slapped me on the back."

Despite clear laws on maternity rights, there is often a sense of a grudge against women for getting pregnant, and the suggestion, either implicit, or explicit, that they are becoming a burden to the company, are swanning off on a paid holiday, or otherwise somehow slacking. This is reported both from colleagues and employers, and was often described as something that was openly joked about and discussed in front of women in the workplace.

"I am a highly qualified financial worker, once employed by an international bank. Comment at a staff meeting (60% male and 40 % female in attendance) by a manager, 'will all the woman in this room please get sterilized, dealing with maternity leave is such a pain.....'"

"At my workplace, the following observation has been noted recently: 'taking your full year of maternity is a sign of weakness. How hard can it be?'"

"At a management dinner, where I happened to be sitting with three other women managers and the organisation's senior manager, he said: 'The most serious management problem we have is maternity leave' - it was supposed to be a joke. I was 9 weeks pregnant at the time (not announced) and though a minor remark, felt it highly revealing of prevailing management culture, fed by an inadequate system to deal with replacing staff on maternity cover."

"I'm an airline captain… Many pilots (as with many careers) wait for promotion before having a family. When I was promoted to captain (at 30, which is quite young) a male Captain in the crew room approached me, I thought to congratulate me on my command. Instead he looked me up and down and said in a disgusted tone 'I suppose you're going to f**k off now and have kids like everyone else does?' And walked away before I could reply, jaw hanging wide in amazement. I am single and have no intention of having children but even so! I was appalled."

"This week in my office an email went around inviting all the colleague to an office baby shower being held in the honour of a pregnant colleague. I sit in a room with 5 other employees, two female, three male plus myself. On opening this email one male openly commented that said pregnant colleague 'hasn't even been with the company for 5 minutes and can't believe maternity rights'. To which the other male in the room seriously asked if it were possible to state in a woman's contract that she shouldn't be able to have children before a certain. Shocked and offended. I'm the fourth male in the room."

"A colleague has just left for 9 months' maternity leave; she took a year with her first baby three years ago. Another colleague (and a woman at that) told me privately that it's a "disgrace" they continue to pay this person and give her benefits for "doing nothing" and that she should be sacked and her job given to a man who won't take so much leave from the company."

Many women reported difficulty in returning to work as planned after maternity leave because their companies attempted to push them out of the job, using their period of absence to cut them out altogether.

"Tried to keep my maternity cover and get rid of me whilst I was on maternity leave because it was 'inconvenient' to let me return to my job when they'd got used to my maternity cover."

"A very clever lawyer woman friend of mine was on maternity leave when her husband, a lawyer at the same firm, was offered to be made a partner at the firm, on a very considerable salary, on the condition that his wife resigned!"

"Having a boss tell me during my second maternity leave that 'I'd been out for a while, others had taken parts of my job and I'd have to find a new niche for myself'..."

"Coming back from that maternity leave to find my belongings in a box... "

"Returned from maternity leave and treated poorly. Pretty much demoted despite policies in place."

Often women's needs or change in circumstances upon returning from maternity leave were frowned upon or used to make them feel 'difficult' and troublesome, with some companies trying to use this as an excuse to make women redundant.

"'Oh, don't ask to go part time....it's a nightmare managing part-timers.' (related to going part time after having children)."

"Attempts to make me take a 2 grade down band because when returning to work they were unable to accommodate my family friendly request (despite this being the same hours as when I had gone on maternity leave) They told me I can't have everything - presume they meant a career and a child that is Breastfeeding. So I requested a career break and this too was declined.  I was told they couldn't accommodate me with time to express milk."

"When returning to work after maternity leave, the same boss refused to allow me to work from home because, I quote, 'how do I know that you won't be sitting at home playing with your baby all day?' (He has two small children and regularly works from home as do other male members of our department.)"

There were also reports of women openly being denied opportunities for promotion or career advancement as a result of their pregnancy or maternity leave.

"'If you hadn't been on maternity leave, I think you'd have got your partnership' silly me."
"I was on maternity leave when a promotion became available. I was not, however, notified of it and therefore missed out on the opportunity."

"At my annual review my boss told me that had I not taken maternity leave I would definitely have received the highest rating (surpassed expectations) but I should be very proud of what I got (meets expectations). He delivered it as a compliment. It didn't sink in until after the meeting how I had been penalized for taking the leave that I was allowed by law. It was a small start-up and I didn't feel I could bring the issue up without creating a controversy. I'm not sure he even realized his mistake. The thought process was clear - you took time off by choice. Even with the protections granted by law, people don't believe childbirth is a legitimate reason to miss work. At a later time, after more women had taken maternity leave, he joked that they needed to stop hiring childbearing-aged women. He was not serious - they hired plenty more - but the sentiment was clear that women were not as reliable and taking maternity leave was undesirable. When I got pregnant again I quit. It seemed easier."

When they returned to work after maternity leave, whilst many women expressed feelings of excitement and relief to be back at their jobs, the reactions from co-workers and superiors often quickly dampened these feelings and made them feel unwelcome, doubted and insecure. There is a repeated suggestion that the experience of giving birth and being a new mother could have had a negative impact on a woman's mental state, her intelligence, and her ability to concentrate on or commit to her job.

"After maternity was greeted by male colleague with 'so, you haven't been taken over by your hormones, then?'"

"My boss telling me she'd wait to do the paperwork for my return from maternity leave in case I'm besotted with the baby. She is also my boyfriend's boss and knows we're sharing the leave equally."

"Senior colleague thought it was acceptable to ask straight whether I would be properly involved in the new project, as 'women are not as committed to work after they have a baby'. He has 3 children but apparently the commitment only affects women…"

"Shortly after my return to work following maternity leave, I arranged a meeting with one client to discuss service delivery. When the meeting finished earlier than expected, I was told in a patronising way 'Good, we finished early. Now you can go back to your baby'.

"Even taking into account that he was closed to retirement age and that I was in my mid-30s, this comment, together with similar experiences, left me speechless and with the depressing, demoralising impression that in many occasions it is male colleagues and clients who will not take you seriously as a professional after you had a baby.

"After I became a mother, I experienced a constant drip drop of explicit or not so explicit comments and attitudes at work with the underlying message 'you don't belong here anymore'… 'you should not be here' or 'you don't really want to be here anyway, do you?' This was so damaging, and yet it happened. I worked for a leading IT consultancy company, and in my experience, you had to work twice as hard to prove yourself if you were a woman, never mind a mother! Despite the facade of corporate best practices, equal opportunities, zero tolerance to unprofessional behaviour, etc, you knew that you had to get on with it, take it, or leave."

Again and again women reported assumptions being made about pregnancy which had nothing to do with their own voiced plans or situations. The stereotypes and expectations of male bosses and colleagues often overrode even their own vocal statements. This includes assumptions about women's likelihood of having a child or another pregnancy, about their commitment to the job, their willingness to continue work full time after the baby is born and the likelihood that they will choose to leave employment.

"A female colleague recently announced she is pregnant, everyone in the office assumes she will quit work and are already talking about replacing her even though she is discussing maternity leave, not resignation, with the company"

"Bosses in one department at my company have asked women about family at interview, boss in another department said having a baby closes the door on promotion (for a woman), boss in my department told a colleague to train someone up before she goes on maternity leave again for a year - she's not pregnant."

"Was told by one boss when I was pregnant with my first child that being a parent and a consultant surgeon would be too much for me and that I would never cope. Not advice ever given to my male colleagues. Luckily advice I ignored."

There were reports of women experiencing discrimination who were able to stand up for themselves using knowledge of the law and their rights, but these were rare. Even when they did manage to successfully defend their rights, they often described the incidents having a deeply negative impact on their experience of maternity, and their return to the workplace.

"I am in my early 40s, a professional, with a PhD and 15 years of experience in the United Nations. I recently came back from maternity leave to my overseas posting, to meet the new boss for the first time. In our first meeting, he explained that I would no longer be in charge of the unit I had been setting up for a year due to my 'special circumstances', and because he wanted to make sure that he respected the rights of my baby to have his mother around. He also stated that while I was nursing it will be difficult for me to focus on my job, so he was being generous by giving me less responsibility, and downgrading my position. Yes, I complained, and yes, my rights were upheld, but it has left a bitter taste, and sadly even left me questioning whether I could do my job properly. And that it what I resented the most - not his misogynist view (or that this was in a part of the United Nations dedicated to human rights), but that it left me feeling the need to prove myself and overworking those first few months back, and thus denying myself time with my baby."

"Returned early from maternity leave. Worked. Was not paid 'in case you didn't turn up'. 'That's illegal' Paid within 24hrs."

There were also reports of women making official complaints about maternity discrimination but no action being taken as a result.

"Was stood down from secondment as 'going on maternity leave soon' Complained, despite it being in writing no action taken."

"While pregnant, I was told by ex-boss I should resign. He said he couldn't plan around me having another baby in the future. And when I took it to HR, I was told he was 'probably just thinking out loud'."

Outside the workplace, women also reported finding little support, with many finding that friends, family and strangers argued strongly against the idea of paid maternity leave, suggested it was unfair to companies and criticised their choices; a prime example of the law not trickling down in reality into cultural attitudes and ideas.

"My dad told me that he doesn't 'agree' with women going back to work after having a baby, that it shouldn't be 'allowed' because they should be at home looking after the baby, that too many women take maternity leave and it's bad for the economy. Very upsetting to hear him say that but not surprising. He said he's 'traditional', that's why he thinks that."


Note on Validity of Sources: The above information submitted to the Everyday Sexism Project is provided by online sources and therefore cannot be independently verified, particularly as anonymity is offered in order to create a safe space in which victims feel able to report. However, reasonable steps such as the monitoring of IP addresses to avoid duplicate entries being sent in from single sources is taken. In addition, the themes highlighted above emerged overwhelmingly from hundreds of different respondents, with each issue being repeated over and over again, suggesting a consensus of common experience which offsets the likelihood of false reporting. The use of self-submitted reports is a common procedure in sociological studies, however this information is intended to be used as a qualitative rather than a quantitative survey, in conjunction with recent statistical findings (such as this survey) that support the experiences reported. The Equal Opportunities Commission estimates that 30,000 women lose their jobs every year as a result of being pregnant.

Last updated: about 3 years ago