Fawcett has long been concerned that pregnant women and new mothers are especially vulnerable in their experience of women’s economic inequality.
- All employees are entitled to up to 52 weeks of maternity leave, provided they give notice and have worked long enough (26 weeks) at their organisation.
- Women who decide to take leave have various statutory rights both during and after pregnancy
- Pregnancy is a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010.
A report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (July 2015) into maternity discrimination in the workplace revealed the problems pregnant women face in the economy. (Read more on Fawcett’s reaction).Covering both employee and employer perspectives, key findings include:
- Around one in nine mothers (11 %) in their sample reported that they were either dismissed; made compulsorily redundant, where others in their workplace were not; or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their job. Scaled up to the population, as many as 54,000 mothers a year could be exiting work due to discrimination from having children.
- One in five mothers said they had experienced harassment or negative comments related to pregnancy or flexible working from their employer and/or colleagues; this could equate to 100,000 mothers a year in the general population.
- 10% of mothers said their employer discouraged them from attending antenatal appointments: as many as 53,000 mothers a year in the general population
- One in three felt unsupported by their employer at some point while pregnant or returning to work.
- Nearly three in 10 said they were not allowed the flexibility they had requested during pregnancy in term of hours (29%), start times (24%) or additional breaks (28%).
This echoes Fawcett findings. In our 2014 report on how the changing labour market is affecting women, we found that in our sample of low paid women:
- 1 in 10 who had returned from maternity leave recently (in the last 5 years) had been given a more junior role. For 40 per cent of those in a more junior role, this was either because their role had been made redundant (10 per cent) or given to someone else against their wishes (30 per cent).
- Nearly 1 in 4 (23 per cent) of those recently returning from maternity leave felt that their opportunities for promotion were now worse. By far the biggest obstacle was the perceived need to be full-time to progress (53 per cent) up the organisation’s hierarchy.This points again to the importance of ensuring that flexible arrangements, such as job-shares, are encouraged at all levels.
- 1 in 5 of those who felt their opportunities were worse put this down to senior staff either believing that they would no longer be interested in promotion (22 per cent) or capable (22 per cent). This was even more marked for women over 35, with nearly 1 in 3 attributing lessened opportunities to senior staff not believing they are capable.
Charges for employment tribunals
Fawcett is concerned that, with the introduction of employment tribunal fees in July 2013, low paid women in particular may be being denied access to justice to tackle instances of maternity discrimination.
Early figures showthat since the introduction of fees, the number of sex discrimination tribunals has fallen sharply – by 58 per cent when comparing figures 2012–13 to 2013–14 – suggesting that this is a real factor.
Effect of welfare reforms
Fawcett’s report Where’s the Benefit? suggests that pregnant women face an arbitrary welfare system – whilst they are likely to receive sympathy and special consideration when visibly pregnant, the rules for and special benefits pregnant women are entitled to are unclear. Whilst pregnant women who are made redundant are safe from benefit sanctioning , they will still have to seek work whilst pregnant to claim benefits (and face a choice of whether or not to reveal their status to potential employers), whilst those who leave their jobs voluntarily due to pressure will be at risk of being sanctioned and left without income.
For example, Maternity Action provided this case:
Emma, who is two months pregnant, was claiming Job Seekers Allowance but suffered from severe morning sickness and was incapacitated first thing in the morning. Although she called her adviser to say she wouldn’t make her work-focused interview, the message wasn’t passed on and she was sanctioned, losing her Allowance for 4 weeks.
The Government’s record on maternity is mixed:
- the Health in Pregnancy Grant was one of the first benefit cuts to be made by the Coalition,
- the Child Tax Credit cap on the second child will penalise children for being born third,
- but the 2015 Budget has explicitly protected statutory payments including Maternity Pay.
What could make a difference:
- The elimination of fees for employment tribunals, which discourage women from pursuing action against employers who discriminate against them
- Increased and improved provision of paternity leave for fathers beyond the new system introduced in April 2015 – currently only 55% take time off in the first two weeks.
- Increased provision of childcare in the gap between the end of maternity benefits and the start of free childcare at age two