Three quarters of pregnant women and new mothers experience discrimination and one in nine lose their job as a result, according to research commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.
The report, Pregnancy and Maternity – Related Discrimination and Disadvantage, is based on the views of over 3,000 women and 3,000 employers, making it the largest survey of its kind.
It found that 77% of women surveyed said that they had experienced negative or potentially discriminatory treatment yet only 28% raised the issue with their employer, only 3% went through the internal grievance process and less than 1% took a claim to an employment tribunal.
The survey shows a range of reasons for this including the financial cost of pursuing a claim, fear of negative repercussions at work, lack of information about their rights and stress and tiredness. Since the introduction in 2013 of tribunal fees of up to £1,200, the number of sex discrimination cases has dropped by 76% and pregnancy-related cases fell by 50%.
The survey also found that some 55% of employers surveyed provided no guidelines, training or support to managers on managing pregnancy and maternity.
Some 10% of women surveyed were discouraged from attending antenatal appointments by their employer and 7% said they were put under pressure to hand in their notice.
One in five new mothers reported experience of harassment or negative comments from colleagues, employers or managers when pregnant or returning from maternity leave.
More than two-thirds of the employers questioned said women should disclose if they are pregnant when they are interviewed for a new post and a quarter said they thought it was reasonable to ask a woman interviewee if they planned to have children, even though this is potentially discriminatory.
The EHRC is calling on the Government to take more effective steps to prevent employers asking during the recruitment process about a woman’s pregnancy or her intention to have children; explore the feasibility of a collective insurance scheme to support SMEs to provide enhanced pay and cover for maternity leave; make changes to the employment tribunal fee system to ensure that fees are not a barrier to accessing justice for pregnant women and new mothers; and consider increasing from three to six months the time limit for a woman to bring an employment tribunal case involving pregnancy and maternity discrimination.
The EHRC has recommended six areas for action to address the problem: leadership for change; improving employer practice; improving access to information and advice; improving health and safety management in the workplace; improving access to justice; and monitoring progress.
This includes a joint communications campaign between Government, the EHRC and business leaders to drive attitudinal and behavioural change “by promoting the economic benefits of unlocking and retaining the talent of pregnant women and new mothers”.
The research was commissioned by Jo Swinson when she was Minister for Employment Relations in 2013. She is now Chair of Maternity Action and says: “The research uncovers very high rates of pregnancy discrimination in the workplace compared to 2005, which should set alarm bells ringing for government and employers alike.
When employers treat pregnant women and new mothers unfavourably at work, they rack up unnecessary recruitment bills, risk costly tribunal awards and damage their reputation.
“When I commissioned this research, the aim was to gain a clear picture of the situation so appropriate steps could be taken. Now that we know the shocking scale of the problem, the Government needs to take swift action to better protect women in the workplace.
“The Government should show leadership by challenging bad practice by employers and funding advice services to support women to exercise their rights.
Part of the gender pay gap is driven by how women are supported in the workplace around before and after pregnancy so the Government should consider extending pay gap reporting to include return rates after maternity leave.”
She added that access to justice was a real issue for those facing pregnancy discrimination, with employment tribunal fees of up to £1,200 pricing most women out of the justice system and “letting dinosaur employers off the hook”.
“Women deserve to be treated fairly at work when pregnant and as new mothers. Our economy simply can’t afford to squander their talent,” said Swinson.
Gillian Nissim, founder of Workingmums.co.uk, said: “workingmums.co.uk is shocked by the reports in the EHRC/BIS report on pregnancy discrimination, but unfortunately this chimes with some of the many emails we receive daily from readers asking advice from our employment law experts.
Many feel that they are being pushed out of work due to changes in shifts, inflexible attitudes to work patterns and poor line management.
Many of those women who encounter difficulty with inflexible attitudes or changes to hours then find it very difficult when seeking new flexible jobs due to the lack of advertised opportunities, especially of more challenging, higher paid jobs.
Therefore we wholly support the recommendation of the report from the Women and Equalities Select Committee – also out today – that flexibility should be the default option for new jobs, unless there is a strong business reason for it not to be.
This will provide businesses with a much bigger talent pool from which to recruit and ensure they don’t lose out on experienced workers with lots to offer.”
In response to the EHRC/BIS report, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee is launching an inquiry to look at the action being taken to address the problem.
The inquiry will focus in particular on whether the Government proposals are enough, or whether tougher action is required to ensure that pregnant women and mothers are treated fairly.
Committee Chair Maria Miller said: “The EHRC’s finding that women are more likely to face pregnancy and maternity discrimination now than a decade ago is shocking. We have strong legislation, but progress on attitudes and awareness has gone into reverse.
This is not good enough. Workplace equality for pregnant women and mothers needs to be real, not just paper-based. Our new inquiry will ask some searching questions, to inform the Government’s plans for creating a fair and equal workplace in the future.”
The Committee is keen to hear from employers, policy organisations and individual women. The inquiry will reportedly focus on solutions, with a particular emphasis on the following areas:
The deadline for evidence submissions is Monday 18 April 2016.