Workplace discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers is neither cool nor legal. Enlightened employers would shudder at the thought, and the rest certainly don’t want to be considered sexist. And yet there are signs that it’s still a problem.
Research from the government’s Equality and Human Rights Commission shows that a significant proportion of mothers feel they got worse treatment as a result of their pregnancy. Nearly a third (29%) of the 3,254 mothers surveyed said they were given fewer opportunities than colleagues at the same level.
One in seven (15%) experienced ‘humiliating, belittling or offensive’ treatment connected to their pregnancy and 11% lost their jobs after telling their employer or going on maternity leave.
That’s 9% who felt their treatment forced them to leave, and another 2% who were either dismissed or made compulsorily redundant when colleagues weren’t. When combined and extrapolated to the nation at large, that would equal 54,000 women.
Of course, this research isn’t proving there is discrimination, just that the women in the sample said there was. It’s entirely subjective whether they were unfairly treated and whether that was because of their pregnancy. It also doesn’t say what proportion of people who weren’t pregnant lost their jobs at the same time.
Assume there is some discrimination at the bottom of the study though. What’s behind it? Here’s a clue. A third of the 3,034 employers polled thought that staff pregnancy put an unreasonable burden on their costs.
It’s not that outrageous a thought. In some businesses, particularly smaller ones and those with highly specialised knowledge required, losing anyone for a prolonged time will cause disruption.
Of course that doesn’t justify penalising someone for getting pregnant, either from a moral or from a business standpoint, and most employers appear to buy into that, with 84% saying that supporting pregnant workers and those on maternity leave was good for the business.
The discrepancy between the last two statistics and also the high figures of self-reported discrimination by mothers (29% for instance said they didn’t get the flexible hours they wanted during pregnancy) indicates there is a grey area, where some employers show grudging acceptance and unconscious discrimination or just pay lip service.
While there are undoubtedly some dinosaurs (conscious or otherwise) out there who would treat young mothers and pregnant women worse because of that, chances are much of that behaviour rightly or wrongly stems from the absence not the pregnancy or maternity itself.
Someone out of the office for a prolonged time will miss out of those impromptu conversations across the desk that may then result in career-growing opportunities, for instance. In that case, they aren’t included, but they aren’t necessarily being excluded. This requires effort and understanding that keeping hold of talent is good for the business. As a message, that’s getting stronger, but by the sounds of it employers still need to do far more.