Many employer attitudes to pregnant women ‘stuck in the 70s’

Pregnant woman holding bump


The attitudes of many employers towards pregnant women are still stuck in the 1970s – with the sacking, bullying and sidelining of expectant mothers commonplace, says a new report from the TUC.

The Pregnancy Test: Ending Discrimination at Work for New Mothers says that although the law is on the side of pregnant women, many feel shunned as soon as they share their impending baby news with colleagues.

It says poor employer attitudes towards mums-to-be can be seen from the rise in the number of cases taken to employment tribunal. During the recession, tribunal complaints involving pregnant women went up by a fifth, and in the five years from 2008 to 2013, more than 9,000 women took their employers to a tribunal.

The report says these figures are merely the tip of the pregnancy discrimination iceberg because few mums with newborns have the stamina to embark on a lengthy legal battle, and the expense of taking a case – £1,200 since tribunal fees were introduced in July 2013 – puts many off taking legal action.

The TUC report says pregnancy and motherhood can seriously affect a woman’s career. Around a quarter of women don’t return to work after maternity leave and one in six of the mums who do go back, change jobs because their employer won’t allow them to work reduced or flexible hours.

Motherhood also comes with a pay penalty – especially for those women who work part-time, according to the report. Six in 10 working mums with children either at nursery or primary school work part time, as do half of those with older, secondary school age children. Just 10 per cent of dads work part time, says the report. It states that women who work part time earn on average a third less an hour than the average hourly rate for full-time men, and two in five part-time women earn less than the living wage.

Earlier this year the TUC carried out a short online survey to find out the kind of treatment pregnant women and new mums had experienced, and its findings appear in The Pregnancy Test as the 10 most common complaints against employers. For each complaint the report sets out how the employer is breaking the law.

The complaints include being sacked for being pregnant, receiving unpleasant comments and negative reactions to their pregnancy announcements, being prevented from attending ante-natal appointments, and being given dangerous or risky jobs to do. Other concerns were being overlooked for promotion or training, disciplined for pregnancy-related sickness absence, or denied the chance to work flexibly.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The law might have changed 40 years ago, but the way many employers behave when they discover an employee is pregnant suggests they are stuck in a 1970s time warp – back to an age when starting a family meant the end of paid work for women.

“This report shows that for many women what should be one of the happiest times of their lives soon becomes full of anxiety and stress – one where bullying, harassment and ill-treatment in the workplace is an unacceptably common experience.

“More needs to be done to drag old-fashioned employers into the 21st century so that mothers who work are as valued by their bosses as working fathers.

“The government could help by raising statutory pay for parental leave from its miserly rate of £138 a week. This would encourage more dads to take time out of the workplace and help challenge the stereotypes about working mothers.

“Stronger rights to flexible working are crucial too, to ensure that both parents are able to advance their careers and achieve a better balance between their busy work and home lives.”

The report makes five suggestions regarding changes that would improve the experiences of pregnant women and new mothers:

–    Employment tribunal fees should be abolished so women can afford to take their employers to court if they feel they’ve been treated unfairly because of their pregnancy or because they have recently become a mother. If employers know they are unlikely to be taken to tribunal they are likely to continue with their bad behaviour, says the TUC.

–   Employers should publish return-to-work rates to see how many new mums go back to their jobs and how many are still in post a year on. They should also carry out exit interviews with any women who feel unable to go back to work, and act on the findings.

–    The government should introduce better paid leave to allow dads to play a greater role in the care of their children and mothers a greater chance to progress at work.

–    Flexible working must become more widespread, and men should have as much chance to work in this way as women. Flexible working should be promoted at the point of recruitment and it should be easier for parents to challenge an employer who turns down their request to work flexibly.

–    Employers who are taken to a tribunal over a pregnancy or maternity-related complaint should be forced to act to improve their employment practices when they are found to have discriminated against a female employee.

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