Maternity discrimination is UK plc's dirty little secret

Despite legislation aiming to protect the rights of new mothers, the statistics tell a different story - and it's a grim one.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 09 Jun 2016

It can happen slowly at first. You might put it down to paranoia but then suddenly realise your hours have been cut and you’re being given far more menial tasks at work than before. What’s changed? Surely it’s not that you’ve just come back from maternity leave or announced to your boss that you’re pregnant? That is against the law after all.

It is, and yet that’s the reality for many women these days – 54,000 new mothers lose their jobs every year according to an Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report from last year. And despite perceived improvement in awareness, many British firms don't seem to be changing their attitudes or their approaches. Citizens Advice has now warned of a growing problem of expectant and new mothers facing discrimination. The charity said there’s been a 25% increase in people seeking workplace guidance on pregnancy and maternity issues in the past year – with more than 22,000 visits to its web advice page on the topic. Evidence included women having their working hours cut, being put on zero-hours contracts, being pressured to return to work early from maternity leave and, in some cases, forced out of their jobs.

It can be too easy to become desensitised to research like this, or dismissive. But when you look past the stats and consider the people behind the numbers, the story is a bleak one. Recently MT met the founders of Digital Mums, a firm which aims to get women back into flexible work after pregnancy by training them as social media managers. The founders themselves admitted they weren’t aware of the scale of the problem until they began to hear individuals’ stories, which began to pile up. A pilot programme they ran highlighted just how big a career issue pregnancy can be for women in the workplace. Four out of the eight mothers involved in the scheme had been made redundant while on maternity leave.

‘We have a lot of women who are coming to the end of maternity leave and are concerned about going back to work because their employers have turned down their right to flexible working,’ co-founder Kathryn Tyler explained. ‘They have a feeling of dread about what it’s going to be like when they go back. Quite a lot of the mums are demoted when they go back to work – suddenly their job becomes a lot more admin-based and they find they’re quite bored.’

Even those who do get the chance to work flexibly on return to employment often feel it reduces their opportunities and they feel less valued. There’s legislation in place specifically to protect women from discrimination in the workplace, but it’s clear both from the range of statistics out there and the plethora of anecdotal stories you hear, that it’s not being enforced.

Read more: 11% of mothers feel pregnancy cost them their job

It's not always intentional; there can be an assumption that a pregnant employee or one just returning from maternity leave may not want to take on as much work as before. It can simply be a misguided attempt to lessen the strain rather than a deliberate move to ostracise. But part of the problem which needs addressing is that it has become fairly easy for companies to get away with this discrimination – both subtly and more blatantly. 

The EHRC found that of 390,000 women experiencing some kind of discrimination during pregnancy, just 1% took their boss to an employment tribunal. It’s a combination of issues – fear of repercussions at work, ignorance about their rights, as well as simply stress and tiredness. Pursuing a legal claim can be a drawn-out, tiresome process. It also costs £1,200 to go to a tribunal - the fee was introduced in 2013 to reduce the number of vexatious claims, but could also be putting off some with more legitimate grievances.

It’s worth noting that the EHRC found the number of sex discrimination cases has dropped by 76% and pregnancy-related cases by 50% since the introduction of fees. For those already feeling stretched thin,  and uncertain about how to pursue their case, the fee could be the extra nail in the coffin in any hope of taking their claim further.

There’s also an internal obligation to get this right. HR needs to fix up and ensure policy matches actual day to day experience. Many have the right concepts in writing, but more can be done to educate staff – such as during the recruitment process. Interviewers need to make sure the process isn’t a barrier to pregnant women or those with a family.

Until these measures are more widely concentrated on and employers are made to answer for this behaviour, maternity discrimination will continue to be a blight. 

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