Almost half a century after the introduction of the Equal Pay Act, on average, men still earn more than women. Contributing to this disparity, a “shocking” recent study has found that one in five pregnant women and new mothers face discrimination at work.
The report, which was commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (ECHR), along with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that:
– Around one in nine (11%) mothers lost their job as a result of discrimination at work (either through redundancy, dismissal, or being treated so poorly they felt they had no choice but to leave). If scaled up this equates to 390,000 working mothers across Britain
– One in five mothers has experienced workplace harassment or negative comments related to pregnancy or flexible working
– 10% of women were discouraged from attending antenatal appointments
– Three-quarters of mothers who were unsuccessful during a job interview felt that knowledge of their pregnancy had affected their chances.
Worryingly, when it comes to the statistics, pregnancy discrimination is not getting any better. Instead, it has risen significantly since 2005, when 45% of women said they had experienced such inequity.
Commenting on the findings, the ECHR urged the government to take urgent action to address the problem stating: “We simply cannot ignore the true scale of the hidden discrimination that working mothers face”.
Pregnancy and maternity discrimination – the law
Such discrimination is, of course, illegal and women have the right not to be dismissed or made redundant because of pregnancy or maternity leave. However, as the study shows, it’s not just about job losses and urgent action is needed to address unfair practices and negative attitudes towards motherhood.
Indeed, the research – which also surveyed the views of employers – found that, while most businesses believed that pregnant women and mothers were as committed as other members of staff and that it was in their interests to support pregnant women and new mothers, a significant minority expressed negative views. One in four employers felt that pregnancy puts an unfair cost burden on the workplace, with many believing it to be entirely reasonable to ask women whether they plan to have children in job interviews.
The legal reality is that, while an interviewer can ask about responsibilities that might interfere with an employee’s attendance at work, they cannot ask questions about marital status, whether a candidate has any children or if they are planning a family.
Pregnancy and maternity discrimination claims
It is concerning that while a quarter of the women affected by discrimination have raised the matter with their employer, less than 1% took their case to an employment tribunal.
A rise in court fees, a lack of information and the stress of pursuing a claim are believed to
be some of the reasons for this discrepancy.
In response, the EHRC has called on the government to lower the cost of making a discrimination claim at tribunal in a bid to secure justice for all. The EHRC has also recommended initiatives to help small and medium-sized employers meet the costs of maternity leave. However, while the government has accepted a number of these recommendations, it feels that it is “too soon” to decrease tribunal fees.
What is clear, given the scale of the problem, is that action is desperately needed to ensure such discriminatory practices and attitudes are tackled once and for all.
*Alan Lewis is a partner and head of employment at national law firm Linder Myers which has offices in Manchester, Shropshire, Chester and Lancashire. He is also an expert on the Workingmums.co.uk Advice & Support pages. If you need any legal advice related to work, contact our experts here.