Pregnancy Discrimination – The Lowdown, The Law, The Way Forward

pregnant woman

by Edwina Langley |
Published on

In the past decade, the way in which pregnant women are treated in the workplace has come on leaps and bounds. That’s right, isn’t it?

Wrong. Very wrong. Doubly wrong, in fact.

The Lowdown on Pregnancy Discrimination

A parliamentary report released by the Women and Equalities Select Committee has revealed that the number of expectant and new mothers who were forced to leave their jobs over either safety concerns for their unborn child or pregnancy discrimination has doubled in the past decade.

Yes, doubled.

And we’re not just talking a few hundred women affected here, we’re talking thousands. 54,000 to be precise.

The report – which used research gathered by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), measured against similar research by the Equal Opportunities Commission in 2005 – found that more than three quarters of women surveyed had been subjected to negative or potentially discriminatory treatment as a result of their pregnancy.

To put a percentage on it, it’s 77%.

Speaking about the findings, Committee Chair Maria Miller said: ‘The arrival of a new baby puts family finances under extreme pressure yet, despite this, thousands of expectant and new mothers have no choice but to leave their work because of concerns about the safety of their child or pregnancy discrimination…

‘There are now record numbers of women in work in the UK. The economy will suffer unless employers modernise their workplace practices to ensure effective support and protection for expectant and new mums.’

Set up in 2015, the committee is now putting pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May to put together a comprehensive plan of action, one that mirrors the system currently used in Germany. There, from the start of a pregnancy to four months after childbirth, a woman can only be sacked with government approval. The company would have had to have gone bust, or put forward an equally unusual state of affairs or reason, for the redundancy to stand.

Undoubtedly, the committee’s report has uncovered some worrying truths. Let’s take a look at them…

Interpreting the stats

The EHRC’s research, ‘Pregnancy and Maternity Related Discrimination and Disadvantage: Experience of Mothers’ published in March earlier this year, uncovered that 50% of mothers surveyed felt their pregnancy had a negative impact on opportunity, status or job security. (So, that’s half of pregnant working women…)

Not only that, but amongst other disturbing findings, 20% said they were on the receiving end of harassment or negative comments, and 11% said they felt forced to leave their job entirely – either through dismissal, being made ‘compulsorily redundant’ (even though colleagues weren’t) or through poor treatment. Applied to the population at large, this could equate as many as 54,000 mothers per annum.

Is this troubling? Absolutely. The figures speak for themselves.

However, Oliver Black, director at My Family Care (a leading provider of family friendly solutions to companies in the UK and internationally) has said that there are other factors to consider too.

‘The economic issues around 2008 and the costs of childcare – rising well above wage inflation – have made it harder for people to combine work and family,’ he explains. ‘Businesses and individuals have both had to make tough decisions.’

That isn’t to say, of course, that thousands of pregnant women haven’t been discriminated against; it merely highlights that the impact of the 2008 financial crisis is something to consider when looking at redundancy figures.

Oliver continues, ‘On a more positive note, this data is over the last 10 years, but more recently we’ve seen more positive moves from a legislative point of view – with Shared Parental Leave and the right to request flexible working.’

That may be so, but evidently there are still problems…

Laws and protections pregnant women should be aware of

A number of laws are in place to protect new and expectant mothers, however many women may not be aware of them.

Here, we detail a small breakdown via information taken from the Women and Equalities Committee report.

Protection from discrimination

All women have the right to protection from discrimination owing to their pregnancy or maternity. Note: any unfavourable treatment because of pregnancy, pregnancy-related sickness or maternity leave is unlawful.

Such discriminatory treatment includes: dismissal including redundancy; refusing to recruit a woman because she is pregnant or on maternity leave; being overlooked for a promotion; having responsibilities removed; not receiving an appraisal; not being on the receiving end of adjustments to protect either them or their baby; not being consulted on redundancies, reorganisation or new jobs; being denied a bonus.

A safe working environment

The workplace must accommodate pregnant women and new mothers, taking all necessary health and safety precautions.

Rest facilities

These must be made available to all pregnant and breast-feeding employees.

Pregnancy and maternity-related rights

These apply to female employees who have signed a contract of employment.

They include: protection against pregnancy or maternity-related unfair dismissal (available from day one); paid time off for antenatal care (available from day one); up to 12 months’ maternity leave; the option to replace some maternity leave with shared parental leave (for those with 26 weeks’ continuous employment and who meet the relevant criteria); statutory maternity pay (for those with 26 weeks’ continuous employment at the 15th week before expected due date) or maternity allowance (for those who do not meet the criteria for maternity pay).

Right to request flexible working

Interestingly, the right to request flexible working is not only available to pregnant employees and those in early maternity, but also to any worker who has had more than 26 weeks in continuous employment. (Who knew?!)

(N.B. The rights and protection for women differ depending on their employment status and the length of time they have worked for a company.)

What to do if you feel discriminated against…

This is a difficult question to answer. My Family Care’s Oliver Black has some useful pointers:

Start with a conversation

Many problems can be resolved with an informal conversation with your manager or HR department. Try to maintain a good relationship with your employer.

Gather evidence

Keep a record of any conversations you have during your pregnancy and maternity leave with your employer, as it can be used as evidence, if it comes to it.

Make it formal

If you don't get a satisfactory response after talking it through, make a formal, written complaint. Every company should have a procedure to deal with this.

Get advice

Seek advice on whether you have a case and how best to present it. Contact your union if you have one, check if legal advice is covered by your home insurance, or call Working Families, Maternity Action or Acas, a statutory body that provides free advice on employment law.

Take legal action

Acas can work as an impartial go-between to help you reach an agreement with your employer. Once you have tried this you can take the case to a tribunal.

What businesses can do to support pregnant or new mum employees

It is the responsibility of the employer to ensure that pregnant and new mother employees feel accommodated. One way make sure this happens, Oliver Black suggests, is to offer a ‘Backup Care scheme’. This could include providing information on where mums can organise last minute childcare, or starting a parent and carer network for employees (one which includes fathers), he says. Businesses can also provide coaching for parents about to go on leave, for those already on it and/or for those getting back into the swing of things when they return.

Being flexible about working hours and Shared Parental Leave policies – and obviously, abiding by the laws and protections referenced above – are a prerequisite.

But Oliver argues that employers who go that extra mile – who wholly accommodate working parents and carers – end up amassing more loyal workforces. ‘Get it right,’ he says, ‘and the employees who are helped to combine career and family successfully can be the most engaged, productive and loyal members of your team. The employer wins and the individual wins.’

It’s hard to argue with that.

Follow Edwina Langley on Twitter @EdwinaLangley

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