Pregnancy and discrimination at work

Gemma McCall explores the reality of maternity discrimination in the workplace

Equality in the workplace has undeniably become a more dominant focus in the past few years. Events such as the global pandemic have caused a shift in the expectations employees have of their employers, and equality, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace have shot to the top of the agenda.

For those that decide to have children, their experience while pregnant is a huge part of equality. A 2016 report from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, plus the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, found three in four mothers (77%) had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy, maternity leave, and on their return from maternity leave. While half of mothers (50%) described a negative impact on their opportunity, status or job security*. 

Our new research suggests the situation is improving, but there is still more to be done given one in four (26%) expectant mothers feel reluctant to share their pregnancy news due to fear of the stigma they may face from colleagues and managers.   

Pregnancy can have a considerable impact on career progression and even funding for pensions in later life, purely as a result of the time taken out for maternity leave   

 The impact of maternity on careers

Naturally, having a child is a pivotal moment for parents, affecting many aspects of their life and this step can often lead to negative workplace experiences. For mothers carrying a child, research shows pregnancy can have a considerable impact on career progression and even funding for pensions in later life, purely as a result of the time taken out for maternity leave. 

More than one in eight expectant mothers (12%) surveyed have experienced maternity discrimination within the workplace, with more than one in ten (11%) saying that it was their manager who discriminated against them. 

Such treatment can have a negative impact on company culture as businesses are creating a workplace where one in six (16%) expectant mothers feel like they are no longer a valued member of the team. This is intensified as, one in 10 (10%) say their working hours were reduced when they told their manager they were pregnant and one in 14 (7%) say they weren’t included in team meetings. 

The impact on mental health

For one in six (16%) expectant mothers, negative treatment from managers and fellow employees has impacted their mental health. Being subjected to negative behaviour at work can often exacerbate any stress or anxiety they may already be experiencing either as a result of their pregnancy or even their usual workload.

For some expectant mothers’, the impact on their mental health results in them feeling isolated and losing confidence in themselves. Ultimately, this can lead to absenteeism, presenteeism and, in the longer term, a negative employer reputation. 

Fostering a positive workplace culture

It’s in everyone’s interest to listen to employees and for organisations to foster a culture where colleagues feel confident in speaking up about discrimination in the workplace – whether they experience it or witness it. 

For many of those who are experiencing maternity discrimination, the perpetrator can often be the person’s manager – the very person employees should be able to confide in. Managers are in a position of power; they hold accountability and they set an example to other employees as to what is acceptable behaviour within the workplace. They have a responsibility to uphold the values of the organisation. Where this is not being upheld, training can be a first step at rectifying negative behaviour but there must also be an understanding that training can only do so much. Effective policies and procedures are necessary to embed this within company culture.

Employers need to ensure that they are fostering a supportive community where people feel valued for the contributions they are making. Empowering people to speak up about problematic behaviour by removing barriers, will help employees and as a result the business thrive.

Gemma McCall is CEO and co-founder of Culture Shift see @UKCultureShift and LinkedIn



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