Pregnancy discrimination and the law


Pregnancy discrimination remains rife in workplaces across the UK. Employers remain ignorant to employees’ rights following a happy announcement of their pregnancies. Employers fail to notice that it is in fact their loss when they discriminate as they not only face financial consequences but also loss of valuable resource and talent.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has recently published their long awaited findings on pregnancy discrimination, reporting that as many as 53,000 mothers to be each year were being discouraged from attending ante-natal appointments during work time. This is a given statutory right to take paid time off for attend such appointments and it is little wonder that women are walking out through sheer upset and desperation over how they are being treated at work. Put it this way, are employees who ask for time off to go ordinarily to their GP treated this way? Usually not…

It is therefore no surprise that in my practice, I speak with women who seek help having being discriminated against during maternity leave who also report that their adverse treatment commenced back when they first told their employer they were pregnant. However, most women are so scared or reluctant to do anything about it during the pregnancy stage in the hope that things will get better and their employers will simply “come round to the idea” and treat them like proper human beings.

I also commonly represent women who may have worked for an employer for an extended amount of time and whose performance has always been regarded as exemplary. The woman, who has always been highly regarded at work, will then announce news of her pregnancy. Suddenly, there is an immediate de-tour of her employer’s earlier opinion of her and in swoops an opinion where her performance is suddenly on shaky ground. As lawyers, you can begin to see a pattern of where an adverse inference can be drawn between the “before and after pregnancy announcement”. I still get surprised by the audacity and brazenness of some employers, especially where earlier annual reviews can clearly report no issues with performance so as to imply that the whole poor performance spiel may be fabricated so as to drive that poor woman out.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission report that approximately 6,000 women lose their job each year after telling their employer they were pregnant (11%).

Employment rights
So, where does that leave women in terms of enforcing their legal rights against their employer? Well, whenever reasonably possible, I try to encourage an individual speak with their employer so as to ascertain whether an internal resolution can be found. This can be helpful for all concerned unless things have become so severe that this is no longer a viable option. I was disappointed to read from the ECHR report that only 5% of employers entered into internal discussions with employees over matters concerning maternity discrimination. The ACAS Early Conciliation scheme, which is now in force, helps somewhat with resolving disputes amicably. Employees need to remember that offering that olive branch to their employer certainly won’t undo or put right the earlier discriminatory acts, but practically it helps to retain continued employment security where this remains an option for some.

Women, especially during early pregnancy, are often reluctant to jump ship from their employment too soon for fear that they may lose maternity benefits. Some also hope that their employer’s mistreatment of them is a misunderstanding and that their employer will eventually treat them well. Some employers have been known to appear mortified over what they didn’t realise was discriminatory treatment and will jump through hoops to resolve matters. In other cases, employers simply don’t entertain any resolution discussions and remain hell-bent on driving that pregnant employee out through continued harassment and discriminatory tactics.

In fact, the Equality and Human Rights Commission reported that one in seven women experienced humiliating, belittling or offensive treatment at work relating to their pregnancy. It is at this point, an employee may choose to resign or some are often signed off with work-related stress. It remains the case that discrimination, whether or not it falls short of dismissal or resignation, will still be answerable and sanctioned before the Employment Tribunals.

The issue of pregnancy and maternity rights in the workplace remain a vast minefield for many, despite there being more information being readily available out there now. When women are forced out of their jobs because of pregnancy, it’s a shameful waste of talent which ultimately keeps the economy turning. The employee is left with a bitter taste in her mouth during a time when she should be ecstatically excited and overjoyed over her imminent arrival whereby the employer is financially out of pocket and has lost valuable talent. I guess it can be seen as a case of one employer’s loss is another’s gain when it comes to workplace talent in the area of maternity discrimination.

*Joanna Robson is a Specialist Maternity Employment Law Solicitor and Founder of Babylaw Solicitors. Babylaw has been operating since 2008 and is an established, nationally based UK employment law firm providing advice and representation to individuals who have been discriminated against by their employers on the grounds of their pregnancy or maternity leave status. It offers an initial free consultation and thereafter it can discuss how it will support women to bring justice against their employer for mistreatment.

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