Survey shows discriminatory attitudes still widespread among employers

Employers still harbour very negative opinions about women in the workplace and 46% believe it is reasonable to ask women if they have young children during recruitment, despite this being discriminatory, according to survey by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The survey of 1,106 senior decision makers in business found around a third of employers believe that women who become pregnant and new mothers in work are “generally less interested in career progression” when compared to other employees in their company.

The survey also shows 40% claim to have seen at least one pregnant woman in their workplace “take advantage” of their pregnancy, around a third (36%) of private sector employers think it is reasonable to ask women about their plans to have children in the future during recruitment and 59% think that a woman should have to disclose whether she is pregnant during the recruitment process.

The survey also found that, when it comes to maternity discrimination in the workplace, 44% of employers agree that women should work for an organisation for at least a year before deciding to have children and the same number agrees that women, who have had more than one pregnancy while in the same job, can be a ‘burden’ to their team.

Half (51%) of employers agree that there is sometimes resentment amongst employees towards women who are pregnant or on maternity leave. Furthermore, around a third (36%) of employers disagree that it is easy to protect expectant or new mothers from discrimination in the workplace.

The EHRC has set up the Working Forward initiative to improve business practices. It asks businesses to commit to taking action on at least two of the three action areas in addition to leadership: employee confidence, supporting line managers and flexible working. It also provides employers with advice, guidance and resources to deliver on their pledges.

A depressing reality

Rebecca Hilsenrath, Chief Executive of the EHRC, said: “It is a depressing reality that, when it comes to the rights of pregnant woman and new mothers in the workplace, we are still living in the dark ages.

“We should all know very well that it is against the law not to appoint a woman because she is pregnant or might become pregnant. Yet we also know that women routinely get asked questions around family planning in interviews. It’s clear that many employers need more support to better understand the basics of discrimination law and the rights of pregnant women and new mothers.”

Mandy Garner, editor of, said: “These findings tally with the kind of emails women send regularly, showing the prevalence of discriminatory attitudes and the kind of blanket assumptions that are still made about women by employers, for instance, that only women will be responsible for childcare.”

Sarah Jackson, CEO of the work life balance charity Working Families, added:  “Sadly, these findings are far from surprising. We hear from women experiencing this type of discrimination every single day that our helpline is open.  21st Century employers recognise the value that supporting pregnant women and those returning from maternity leave brings in terms of loyal, productive and committed employees.  What’s clear from these findings is many employers are still operating under false economy.  SMEs in particular need more support.
“A key barrier to progress on pregnancy and maternity discrimination is the shortage of jobs advertised with part-time or flexible hours.   Making all jobs in the UK flexible as the norm rather than the exception, as the Prime Minister has suggested, would help stamp out the discrimination endemic in the recruitment process, which these findings highlight.”
The legal position
Kate Palmer, Head of Advisory at HR consultancy Pensinsula UK, said: “Asking questions in a recruitment interview about a plans to have children in the future should be avoided. It emphatically announces the employer’s intention to factor the response into their decision over who gets the job: someone who is likely to have a year out of the business at some point or someone who is not. Making decisions based on pregnancy, or likely pregnancy, is unlawful.”

She added that employers may be mistakenly under the impression that, because the female candidate is not actually pregnant at the time of the interview, that the anti-discrimination laws do not kick in yet or that because the candidate does not actually work for them yet, the law does not apply.

She said: “Employers must do more to realise the wide scope of discrimination laws to protect themselves against Employment Tribunal claims and the subsequent impact on brand reputation.

“A good starting point would be to consider current policies within a company and ensure that they are written from the point of view of protecting new and expectant mothers. Ask yourself: would our current practices mean that a new or expectant other would receive unfair treatment? This question should be asked for all processes from recruitment to termination and sometimes beyond, e.g. when giving references. If the answer is yes, then make a change.”

Palmer added that the Government also needs to do more to dispel the seemingly common thought that women are less committed to work after having a baby and to make clear to employers that questions asked at interview can lead to claims of discrimination at Employment Tribunal.


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