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31 July 2015

Government research reveals extent of workplace discrimination against mothers

3 mins

Last week the government published the results of its research into pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination in the workplace. 

The research was carried out with the Equality and Human Rights Commission and involved interviews with over 3,000 mothers and over 3,000 employers. As an employment lawyer who has advised many women on discrimination, the results of this survey do not come as a surprise to me, but they are no less disturbing. They include the following:

  • 11% of mothers said they had been dismissed, made redundant or forced out of their job because of pregnancy or maternity (this means approximately 54,000 women per year). 7% said that they were put under pressure to hand in their notice;
  • 20% of mothers said they had been on the receiving end of negative comments or harassment relating to pregnancy or flexible working from their employer or colleagues;
  • 10% of mothers reported that their employer had discouraged them from going to antenatal appointments, and almost 10% of mothers said they were treated worse at work after returning from maternity leave.
  • Reflecting on these statistics I considered how often my clients report feeling marginalised and excluded from work after they have had children. So often, the operational and business demands of companies seem to obscure the bigger picture. The prevalence of workplace discrimination against pregnant women and mothers is a painful example of this. Operational and business requirements so often trump the employment rights of female staff who are, or would be, mothers.

In my practice I regularly deal with pregnancy and maternity related discrimination complaints. It is often possible to detect the prejudiced beliefs that are at work beneath the discrimination, for example, the belief that once a woman has children, she will be less committed to work, less productive, less ambitious and less reliable. While an employee is on maternity leave, many companies will reorganise their workforce in a way that assumes that they’re not coming back. One client of mine raised her concerns about this and was told by her female line manager: “Well, let’s see how you feel once you’ve had your baby”.

Although it may not look like it at first glance, this kind of comment is part of an ingrained culture of sex discrimination perpetuated by men and women. It is perhaps part of a business mentality that loses sight of our shared humanity. After all, let us not forget that without mothers none of us would be here, let alone, organisations, businesses and profit-margins.

Although managing maternity-related absence is not straightforward, we owe it to the entire workforce – male and female, mothers and fathers – to carefully and lawfully plan and manage maternity-related absence in a supportive and non-discriminatory way. If we don’t do this, pregnancy and maternity discrimination will continue and the vital job of building trust in the workplace will fail.

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