Pregnancy: the happiest time of your life or the end of career progression?

Pregnant woman working


Lawyer Crystal Bolton on discrimination against pregnant women and what can be done to counter it.

Although the law is on the side of pregnant women, The Pregnancy Test: Ending Discrimination at Work for New Mothers report published by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) last year showed that many feel shunned as soon as colleagues become aware of impending baby news.

Employment Law was first changed to protect pregnant women at work 40 ago. However, the report indicated that sidelining, bullying and sacking of expectant mothers is still commonplace, suggesting the attitudes of many employers are stuck in the 1970s.

A jump in pregnancy and maternity-associated tribunal receipts since the recession began would certainly appear to evidence these attitudes. The number of claims involving pregnant women that were submitted to the Employment Tribunals during the recession went up by a fifth. More than 9,000 women made a Tribunal claim against their employer between 2008 and 2013.

It is likely that the true number of claims is far higher as few mums with new-borns have the appetite, time or money to embark on a lengthy tribunal claim. Tribunal fees alone are enough to put many women off. The total fees to pursue a claim all the way to hearing are £1,200, a huge expense for those on maternity pay of just £138.18 a week.

The report also indicated that a woman’s career can be seriously affected by pregnancy and motherhood with around a quarter of women not returning to work after maternity leave. A lack of family friendly rights such as flexible working, family leave or help with childcare can be huge deterrents for new mothers when deciding on whether to return to work, but of those who do not return, only around 17% make a personal choice to be a stay-at-home mum. Of those women who do return, the report suggests one in six have to change jobs as employers won’t allow them to work reduced or flexible hours.

Pay penalty

There also appears to be a pay penalty attached to motherhood, particularly for those who work part time. Six in ten working mums with young children work part time and half of those with children at secondary school. This is compared in the report to the percentage of dads working part time which is only 10%. On average part-time women earn a third less an hour than full-time men.

Although there is legislation in place to protect pregnant women from unfavourable treatment, the report found that there were still many complaints of women being dismissed for being pregnant, being prevented from attending crucial ante-natal classes (or asked to make this time up), receiving negative reactions and comments or being given dangerous or risky tasks to carry out. The report also shows that pregnant women are often overlooked for training or promotion, disciplined for sickness absence related to their pregnancy or refused flexible working requests.

It is said that pregnancy should be the happiest time of a women’s. However, this report clearly shows that employment matters are causing expectant mothers unnecessary anxiety and stress both financially and physically. Financial stress could be alleviated by an increase in statutory maternity pay. The abolition of Employment Tribunal fees would make it easier for expectant and new mothers to seek justice and compensation when they have been unfairly treated. This would also be likely to act as a deterrent to employer’s mistreatment of such women if they knew they were likely to be taken to a Tribunal.

Employers who have been found to have discriminated against pregnant women should be forced to act to improve their practices. Also flexible working should be more widespread and promoted at the point of recruitment and parents who have had requests turned down should have more opportunities to challenge the refusal.

*Crystal Bolton is an Employment Solicitor and Assistant Head of the Employment Department at Michael Lewin Solicitors. Crystal has acted for both private individuals and companies at every stage of litigation from drafting ET1/ET3s to dealing with disclosure and drafting Witness Statements. Crystal has a particular interest in complicated discrimination claims especially sex, maternity related and disability discrimination. She is a regular contributor to the news section of the firm’s website and is a regular commentator and writer on topical legal issues and her opinions have been featured in publications such as the Solicitors Journal and HR Zone. If you have any legal questions for Crystal, send them in via the box on our Advice & Support/Q & A page.

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