Can shared leave help stop shocking rise in pregnancy discrimination at work?

So, pregnant women face more discrimination at work than they did a decade ago. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the much-hyped diversity agenda.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 13 Oct 2016

According to research from the DBEIS and EHRC, no fewer that 11% of mothers they surveyed said they had been dismissed, made compulsorily redundant, or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their job.

That’s almost double the figure from 2005, despite all the chatter about equality and the fact that in the intervening period the Equality Act of 2010 outlawed such blatant discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace.

The survey - which was conducted in 2015 - is based on interviews with 3,034  employers and 3,254 mothers so it cannot be dismissed as a back of envelope affair.  

Today’s news is all about the official recommendations as to what should be done to tackle it. But before we get to that bit, its worth taking a moment to consider what is behind this apparently shocking rise in discrimination.

Why, despite the fact that we know many major employers are desperate to retain more talented women – not to mention the fact it has been illegal for the past five years - are so many apparently choosing to get rid of female employees at a time when they are so financially and emotionally vulnerable?

The official line taken by the Women’s Equality Commitee of the House of Commons (who commissioned the research) is that it’s because the law is inadequate. It should be strengthened they say to include a German style clause, effectively making it impossible to dismiss women from when they become pregnant to four months after they give birth, except in very specifically prescribed circumstances. When a firm goes bust, for example.

But sacking someone (sorry, ‘making them redundant’) who is pregnant or away on maternity leave is already illegal, although it seems that for many employers getting rid of someone while they are pregnant and not actually in the office is still a more palatable prospect than doing so through the usual performance management channels when they are at work.

This despite the fact that, inadequate law or otherwise, pregnant women are still amongst the most heavily protected classes of employees in the country. It seems that too many managers are happy to run the risk of legal action (knowing that many will not have the determination or money for a fight) in order to get rid of someone, without having to look them in the eye everyday at work afterwards. Oh dear.

What the boss or the PR department have to say on diversity is one thing, but the reality for many managers at the coalface is very different. Perhaps that 25 yr old that came in to do maternity cover turns out to be pretty good, and a lot cheaper. When ‘doing the right thing’ clashes with the bottom line, in many firms in fearful, cost-obsessed 2016 there is only one winner.

Thus more legislation, however well intentioned, might simply lead to even more loophole-chasing and even worse behaviour by employers.  

But all is not doom and gloom - rather than adding extra layers of legal armour plate, perhaps it might make more sense to come at the problem from another direction. Fathers don’t suffer the same kind of discrimination, so the introduction of shared parental leave might make all the difference.

When mums to be and dads to be can share the burden not only of childcare but also of time off work and impact on careers, there will be that much less of an incentive for employers to discriminate against one group more than the other.

So bring on shared parental leave - better for work, better at home, better for employers, better for families. Just better.


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