This discrimination against new mothers at work must end

pregnant woman at work

It’s 40 years since legislation was first passed protecting women from being fired the moment they told their boss that they’re pregnant. You might have thought that by now we would have got to grips with the notion that most women will at some point in their lives have children, and will need some time away from work to deal with the messy business of giving birth, changing nappies, breastfeeding and generally getting to know this new small person who is probably infinitely more interesting than their boss.

You would think that we could accept that women might both need and want to return to work at some point, and that they hadn’t planned on exiting the labour market as soon as they entered the labour ward. Yet a new TUC report suggests that we’ve still got a way to go in terms of supporting women to have children and to continue to work.

Cartoon by Jacky FlemingWe spoke to union members about their experiences when pregnant at work and found some common themes: redundancy; bullying and unwelcome comments; paid time off for antenatal appointments refused; dangerous or hazardous work; promotion opportunities blocked; disciplinary action for pregnancy related illness; refusal to allow family-friendly hours; problems with breastfeeding at work; and loss of pay and benefits.

As Richard Exell blogged last week, new figures from Maternity Action show us that cuts to pregnancy and child-related benefits mount up to a staggering £1.5bn – so women can ill afford to take a cut to their salaries or to be squeezed out of the workplace altogether.

While the types of discrimination that we uncovered didn’t surprise me, some of the actual experiences women told us about did. For example, one woman told us: “I was handed my notice at six months’ pregnant. I had to fight redundancy hard with the aid of my union and I was eventually offered a job two grades lower (and £10,000 less salary).”

Or the woman who said she was “shouted at and sworn at for being in the toilet with morning sickness”. Another woman was asked to make her midwife appointments on a Saturday (the NHS is good but it’s not that good). And another said she suffered from bullying and harassment and had to “plead to get time off for antenatal appointments”.

Last year the Everyday Sexism project collated examples of pregnancy discriminationwhich had been posted on the #everydaysexism website. The same themes crop up as those identified in the TUC report and the testimonies from women are equally shocking, if not more so. One woman reported that “[I] was told by my boss to have an abortion or resign – as my colleague was pregnant first and ‘two pregnant workers was unfair’.”

All of this is just the tip of the iceberg. The Equal Opportunities Commission estimated back in 2004 that 30,000 women per year are forced out of their jobs because of pregnancy discrimination and there’s no reason to believe that the picture has improved. The number of employment tribunal claims for unfair dismissal and suffering a detriment because of pregnancy rose by one fifth from 2008 to 2013, with more than 9,000 women taking their employer to tribunal. Yet we know that this represents just a tiny proportion of the total number of women who have experienced this type of discrimination (earlier research found that only 3% of women who lost their jobs due to pregnancy discrimination made a complaint to a tribunal). With the introduction of employment tribunal fees, the number of women taking action against employers who discriminate against them has dropped even further.

So how can we drag ourselves into the 21st century and start valuing mothers in the workplace?

Getting employers to recognise and monitor the problem would be a good start. The TUC is calling on employers to publish information on how many women employees return to work after having children and, crucially, how many are still in post a year later.

Fathers must be part of the solution too. New research from the NCT finds that many fathers really want to spend more time at home with their children yet the current statutory paternity pay is a paltry £138 per week – 40% lower than the national minimum wage for a full-time worker – which makes it unaffordable for many fathers to take time off. Decent paternity pay and a dedicated period of “use it or lose it” father’s leave would go some way towards creating more shared parenting. It would also encourage employers to think about how they accommodate both men and women who need time out of the workplace when they become parents, rather than just wishing they could avoid women of childbearing age. Similarly, more flexible working for both men and women is crucial if we want to allow parents to hold on to their jobs, and to balance work and family life more equitably.

Employers also need to learn lessons from pregnancy and maternity discrimination cases brought against them. Too often, poor practice becomes embedded. As one friend said to me after being made redundant upon return to work from maternity leave “I’m not a one-off – every single woman at my firm who has ever got pregnant has been made redundant.” Tribunals should be given the power to make enforceable recommendations that an employer changes its practices following a finding of discrimination.

Crucially, we need to remove barriers to women enforcing their rights. We already have many essential rights in place – see our new  “Know Your Rights” leaflets – but we need them to be enforced. Abolishing employment tribunal fees would be a huge step in the right direction. While not all women will want to go through the stress of an employment tribunal when they’re having a baby, some women will want to and fees are a £1,200 barrier to them accessing justice.

This was originally published on the TUC’s Touchstone Blog

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Scarlet Harris
Scarlet is the Women’s Equality Officer at the TUC as well as a member of the Women’s Budget Group management committee.