Reducing discrimination for new mums: what works?

Family of 4, 2 kids on their parents shoulders


What initiatives and policies help to drive out discrimination against pregnant women and new mums?

An event hosted by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s Working Forward group on Tuesday focused on the practical steps that employers can take.

Caroline Waters, Deputy Chair of the EHRC, said that in the lead-up to Brexit the EHRC’s mission to protect rights seemed more critical than ever. “As a nation we are facing crucial questions about who we want to be,” she said.

The EHRC wants to create a movement to tackle maternity and pregnancy discrimination, which leads to 54,000 women a year losing their jobs. “We need to go beyond superficial policy,” said Waters, and create policy, practice and cultures that “speak to everyday life”. That meant encouraging people to speak up about poor treatment and discrimination, she said, adding that women often didn’t call it out until it had happened to them several times. That threshold needed to be lowered, stated Waters.

Line managers

In the panel discussion that followed Petra Wilton, Director of Strategy & External Affairs at the Chartered Management Institute, spoke of the lack of women at senior and middle management level – the so-called “missing middle” – and said 1.5m more female managers were needed by 2024 to address the gender imbalance in management. That meant tackling not just pregnancy and maternity discrimination but also everyday issues in workplace culture which hold women back. Managers needed to be trained to have better people skills and to build more inclusive cultures, she stated.

Sarah Gordon, business editor of The Financial Times, said employers seemed more aware about diversity issues and why they mattered, but were not so sure about what worked to make their workplaces more diverse. Research showed things like discrimination and unconscious bias training didn’t work, she said. What worked was everyday things like changing recruitment, retention, performance management and promotion processes. Employers also needed to do more on childcare since it had a broader societal and business benefit.

Martin Daubney, a media commentator and founder of the Men & Boys Coalition, spoke about how he had left his job as editor of Loaded after his son was born due to the long hours and how there was little support for dads who did so. The pressures on dads to be the breadwinners continued and needed to be tackled so there was greater equality all round, he stated, and dads needed to be part of the discussion around discrimination. He added that Shared Parental Leave was important, but it needed to be properly remunerated for dads to take it.

Alison Wilcox, Group HR director at, said employers needed to create cultures which enabled people at different points in their lives with different challenges “to bring their full self to work”. It was the job of business to eliminate barriers to working and leaders had a key role to play in setting the tone. The rewards included greater loyalty and commitment.

A culture of trust

The panel discussed the importance of creating a culture of trust, setting targets and measuring them, promoting realistic role models – both male and female, having conversation after conversation with line managers, creating sponsorship schemes and encouraging genuine commitment to diversity from the top down. Sarah Gordon spoke of a mining company which set targets for every team which involved increasing gender diversity by 3% every year. If line managers didn’t meet the target they had to explain why and they had their bonuses cut.

Alison Wilcox remarked that it was important not to make assumptions about what different groups wanted as this could lead to “a new form of tyranny and a benign form of bias”. That meant managers being trained to have open discussions with individuals so they could try to understand their needs.

Most of the panel were hopeful about the future, especially given evidence of millennials wanting greater diversity and flexibility. There was an increased interest in getting dads into the conversation, said Martin Daubney, but more needed to be done at school level to encourage boys into the so-called caring professions and teaching. Alison Wilcox said there was evidence of a greater focus on targets and Petra Wilton felt gender pay audits, more pressure on social media and greater awareness in society would help move things forward.

However, Sarah Gordon was less optimistic and pointed to the election of Donald Trump and the UK’s exit from the EU which she said had driven a lot of protections for working mums. “We have to be incredibly vigilant against backsliding on this. There is a lot of lip service paid to diversity. In many places the issues have not been internalised. To make culture changes you have to change the way you behave. That means specific policies within companies and at the legislative level,” she said.

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