Women need a greater understanding of their employment rights or risk being exploited by their employers, according to Workingmums.co.uk’s newest legal expert.
Danielle Ayres says some employers are taking advantage of ignorance about employment rights to discriminate against pregnant women and new mums – even though this is illegal.
“The problem is that women – even high-flying career women who have worked in a professional environment – don`t know their rights,” said Danielle, an employment lawyer for North West firm Gorvins Solicitors.
“Unfortunately, women are too scared to speak out for fear of being branded a troublemaker, or if they still work for the company they are worried about losing their jobs, particularly now that they are responsible for a child.
“There is stigma from employers when career-driven women get pregnant. They think they won’t come back, they think they won’t be as focused when they want to push their businesses forward. So some then get rid of them.”
She also points out that mums only have three months to take a case of discrimination to an employment tribunal. “This tends to be the time when women are weak, exhausted and knee-deep in nappies. It just isn’t a priority and then it all gets brushed under the carpet,” she said.
Danielle is a mum of two young boys and during her maternity leave became aware through other new mums that pregnancy and maternity discrimination was a lot more prevalent than she had previously thought. So she chose to focus her attention on this niche area and on her return from maternity leave set up specialist advice clinics called ‘Keeping Mum’ for expectant and new mothers, offering legal advice and support to those encountering problems. The clinics run every three weeks and Danielle also runs free legal clinics at Sure Start Centre and Mother & Baby groups every six weeks.
As a result of these clinics Danielle has been involved in a large number of tribunal cases in this area. She has also been able to successfully negotiate settlement agreements, securing some large financial settlements as well as apologies on her clients’ behalf.
Her cases include one woman who, after informing her boss she was pregnant, was told: “I hope you aren’t going to be taking the full 12 months off.”
Another woman Danielle has advised returned to work to find that a reorganisation had taken place while she had been on maternity leave and that she had no desk or job.
Women are entitled to up to 12 months of maternity leave, which is split into ordinary maternity leave and additional maternity leave. After ordinary maternity leave [the first 26 weeks], they are entitled to return to their original job. After additional maternity leave [the following 26 weeks] they are entitled to return to their job or a suitable alternative.
The charity Maternity Action now estimates that as many as 60,000 women a year are forced out of their jobs due to pregnancy and this doesn’t include the women who are demoted, harassed, aren’t put forward for promotion or those who are self-employed.
In a few months’ time the Equality and Human Rights Commission will publish results of a study which campaigners say will show a big rise in the numbers of women suffering discrimination because they are pregnant or taking maternity leave.
In the UK there are over 750,000 live births a year, according to the Office of National Statistics, to women who are on average 30 years old. For many women this is several years into a serious career.
“Some employers manage pregnancies and maternity leave to the letter and they really know how to support working mums. But others – either by fault or design – get it completely wrong,” added Danielle.
The issue was discussed with Danielle and Joeli Brearley from Pregnant Then Screwed on BBC TV’s Victoria Derbyshire Show last week and drew a huge reaction.
Responding on Facebook, one woman said she had been dismissed while pregnant and thought she had been unfairly treated. “I researched the ins and outs of it and I could have pursued it further, but felt so stressed I decided against further action because I was pregnant.
Danielle added: “We need to raise awareness amongst women that they are entitled to full maternity rights – so that they can be protected when they decide to have a baby. ”
Danielle will join the expert panel at Workingmums.co.uk. If you have a question for her or any of our employment lawyers, go to our Advice and Support page and click on the blue box to ask a question. For more information on maternity rights, click here.