Pregnancy and maternity discrimination forces thousands of new mothers out of their jobs

Written by Mary Isokariari on 31 July 2015 in Features
Features

New research suggests that around 54,000 women are losing their jobs in Britain each year

Working mothers are still being penalised for having children according to new research from Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The data, which is based on a survey of over 3,200 women, suggests around 54,000 new mothers may be forced out of their jobs in Britain each year after having a baby.

Surprisingly, 11 per cent of the women interviewed reported having been dismissed, made compulsorily redundant where others in their workplace were not, or treated so poorly they felt they had no choice but to leave their jobs.

Caroline Waters, Deputy Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “This research reveals the worrying levels of discrimination and disadvantage at work that women still face today. Not only is discrimination unlawful, but it is also bad for business.

“That’s why today we’re launching a major initiative to bring this issue into the public eye, improve awareness of the law and work with business and other groups to find workable solutions.”

The research, carried out with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, also revealed that one in five new mothers had experienced harassment or negative comments from their colleagues, employer or manager when pregnant or returning from maternity leave.

Hannah Martin, a mother-of-two from Worthing, West Sussex, was forced out of her role as an advertising copywriter when she returned to work from maternity leave.

She said: “After a perfect appraisal, and a bonus for winning my company a prestigious industry award, I was called into a meeting one day with my managers and given 24 hours to resign. If I didn’t do this, it was explained they would start disciplinary procedures against me, promising I’d be out in six weeks.”

Angry about how she was treated, Martin co-founded the Talented Ladies Club, to share her experiences and demand for change.

She said: “From interviewing a number of mothers and companies, I believe that the companies that get the most value from working mums are the ones that work with each mum to identify what the employer needs from them, and then look for opportunities to achieve this in a way that enables the mum to remain fulfilled and able to balance her work and her family.

“Everyone then has clear parameters and goals by which they can measure the success or otherwise of the agreement. It also prevents the mum from feeling she has been demoted to the 'mummy track', and enables her to demonstrate her value and still attain her career ambitions. 


However, the study suggests that for some women pregnancy and maternity at work is not a positive experience as 10 per cent were discouraged by their employer from attending antenatal appointments. When mothers were allowed to work flexibly, around half reported negative consequences such as receiving fewer opportunities at work or feeling that their opinion was less valued. 

Martin said: “There will always be more forward thinking employers, and there will always be those who care more about their bottom line than their people. Companies who will employ any underhand tricks they need to cut cost and avoid being more broadminded in how they operate.

“Losing mothers is an expensive drain of talent, not least in the cost of replacing them, so the ideal scenario for all parties is to find a way that works for both employer and mother. And the companies who are most open to this are the ones who are attracting and retaining the top talent.”

The research also found that mothers working for small businesses were less likely to report experiencing negative consequences as a result of flexible working requests 

Gemma Guise, co-founder of JournoLink, an affordable, interactive online PR platform for small businesses and entrepreneurs, is currently expecting her first child. 

“People assume that mothers lose their brain when they go off to maternity or become less sensible, which is untrue. Luckily, my experience has been positive as I’ve received a lot of respect for becoming a mum and running a company. I’ve been surprised by the support from my colleagues, it’s been great.

“However, from a small business owner’s perspective, I can understand the dilemma bosses are in when they are unable to pay someone to take their full maternity [entitlement] and also pay for a replacement. That isn’t discriminatory, but it would be difficult especially within the first two years when money is crucial to the growth of a company.”

Time for change

Joeli Brearley, the founder of Pregnant Then Screwed online campaign, which aims raise awareness of pregnancy discrimination in the UK, said she felt "vindicated" when reading the results of the survey.

"None of it came as a shock. I knew that pregnancy and maternity discrimination is systemic and cases of it are increasing, not decreasing. I really do believe that this is just the tip of the iceberg, but the report is enough to hopefully attract the attention that this issue deserves," she said. 

Brearley, who was sacked when she was four months pregnant, launched the blog in March, and so far over 450 women have anonymously shared their own stories.

Speaking about her own experience, she said: "It was utterly terrifying. Thankfully through a mixture of good luck and persistence I ended up securing some incredible contracts and started working for the most terrific organisation —​ FutureEverything. They employed me knowing I was pregnant. I am still with them now, they are very supportive of me and this campaign. 

"I started PTS as I wanted to find a way to expose the problem. The big challenge is that the victims of this kind of discrimination don’t have a voice. They are effectively silenced by fear of being branded a trouble maker or for fear of losing whatever job they are left with, others sign confidentiality agreements.

“We are not talking about this so we allowing it to happen. By creating a space for women to tell their stories anonymously and in their own words, this helps to release some of the bruising women feel but it also proves that this is happening and shows how it is affecting its victims. 

She suggested a number of measures that the government could implement to prevent the mistreatment of pregnant women and working mothers, such providing more subsidised child care, so women could afford to go back to work.

"I believe the current legal structures are unhelpful. I am campaigning for an extension in the time women have to take a case to tribunal. It is currently 3 months which is ridiculous —​ dealing with that amount of stress when you are pregnant or when you have just had a baby is seriously damaging to mother and child. We need to get rid of Tribunal fees which currently stand at £1,200 —​who has that sort of money when you are on maternity leave?

"Employers need more training. I think most employers don’t treat women unfairly out of malice, they just don't know what to do. They need help. As a society we need to value care giving as much as we do bread winning. Both are necessary to create a well-functioning society but we value bread winning over care giving in the UK.

“In addition to this, we need to address the gender pay gap so that families can afford for men to take longer paternity leave."

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