Rock-a-bye baby, on the tree top, when baby comes, will employment stop?

Easter, like Spring, focuses our minds on birth and new beginnings.  Most of us welcome the lighter and longer evenings (once we have got over losing an hour’s sleep), and who can resist the beauty of the blossoms on the trees and the fluffy ducklings and gambolling lambs?  Yet last week a Government-commissioned report showed that three in four mothers in the UK have had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience in the workplace.  Further, half of all mothers say pregnancy and maternity leave had a negative impact on their career.  Perhaps quite shockingly (or perhaps not), no less than 70 per cent of bosses stated that they think women should declare they’re pregnant when applying for jobs, and felt it was absolutely fair to ask women at interview whether they planned to have (more) children.  Indeed, despite moves to reduce the gender pay gap and calls for greater representation of women on company boards, this second report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (“EHRC”) shows a significant deterioration in attitudes towards pregnant women and women returning from maternity leave.

Proposals – what can be done to help?

In response to these shocking statistics, the EHRC has put forward a number of proposals to the Government to address these issues.  The four main changes proposed are:

  1. take more effective steps to prevent employers asking questions during the recruitment process about a women’s pregnancy or intention to have children;
  2. make changes to the employment tribunal fee system so that cost isn’t a barrier to justice;
  3. consider increasing the time that a woman can bring an employment tribunal claim from three to six months for pregnancy and maternity discrimination cases; and
  4. explore the possibility of a collective insurance scheme for SMEs to provide enhanced pay and cover for maternity leave, based on a successful model in Scandinavia.

In a drive to improve practice and prevent discrimination taking place, the EHRC has also made a number of recommendations to improve leadership, management practice, information, and health and safety among employers.  These include:

  • a joint communications campaign between Government, the EHRC and business leaders to drive attitudinal and behavioural change by promoting the economic benefits of unlocking and retaining the talent of pregnant women and new mothers;
  • improving the advice and information available to help employers and employees understand their rights and obligations; and
  • improving health and safety management in the workplace so women are not forced to choose between their job and their health or the health of their unborn child.

In the light of its report, Caroline Waters, Deputy Chair of the EHRC said:

“We simply cannot ignore the true scale of the hidden discrimination that working mothers face.  This is unacceptable in modern Britain, and urgent action is needed to ensure women are able to challenge discrimination and unfairness.  This is why we are calling on Government to look at the barriers working pregnant women and mothers face in accessing justice.”

The law – Equality Act 2010

Discrimination at work against pregnant women and those on maternity leave is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010.  During the protected period (which is the beginning to the end of maternity leave) employers must not discriminate, or treat employees unfavourably because of their pregnancy, or because they have given birth recently, are breastfeeding or on maternity leave.  Despite this, a lot of discrimination continues to take place, perhaps because of some of the enduring myths surrounding women in the workplace.


  • Maternity Leave is expensive for a business

Statutory maternity pay is funded by the Government.  A company can decide whether to offer any enhanced maternity pay or not –there is no obligation.  Under the shared parental leave rules, fathers are also entitled to paternity pay in certain circumstances.  Again, unless the company decides they would like to offer additional pay, this is funded by the Government.

  • Time Expenditure of training someone new

An employee can leave a job at any time.  Recruiting and training someone new should be factored into any sensible business’ strategic company management as a matter of course.  Further, recruiting a temporary maternity cover does not mean that you are going to get someone who is substandard.  Indeed, there is a high likelihood they will be keen to impress, may offer new ideas and different experiences which could be invaluable to a small organisation.

  • Pregnant employees or new mothers will not prioritise their jobs any longer

Yes, proprieties will change – and rightly so.  However, this shouldn’t automatically impact on a woman’s ability to do her job and to do it well.  If your employee has reduced efficiency whilst she is pregnant, maybe she didn’t care that much to begin with.  More likely it is because you are not making her feel valued, or perhaps you are unwittingly discriminating against her because you have already decided that her priorities have changed.

Changing Attitudes

My experience is that pregnant women and new mothers returning to work are generally keener than most to show that they’re as capable (if not more so) than they were before giving birth.  Having a maternity policy can promote a consistent approach to maternity across the business and increase awareness about the support available for pregnant employees.  Considering a return-to-work plan could help the employee to reintegrate following maternity leave, because it will allow her to establish a new routine and get up to speed with changes that occurred during her maternity leave.  Supporting flexibility in terms of a staggered return to work, or an adjustment to part-time working is another way that an employer can support a returning mother.  An employer can also benefit from supporting breastfeeding mothers.  

Employers that follow good practice towards all parents increase the likelihood of achieving a gender-diverse workforce.  By keeping women out of the workplace during their “child-bearing years”, a company is sure to lose business from the same demographic resulting, naturally, in less profit.  When a business is gender-diverse, it can bring meaningful results including more talented employees and improved performance and morale. Food for thought I would say.

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