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Tackling pregnancy discrimination

Sue Weekes

Discrimination against parents

Despite new legislation, like the shared leave regulations due to come into effect in 2015, new mothers are still facing discrimination when pregnant or on maternity leave – and fathers are feeling the negative impacts as well. Sue Weekes investigates

The law and guidelines make it crystal clear that it is unlawful to treat a woman on or returning from maternity leave unfairly. We also live in an enlightened age where employers and the government have us believe that a high value is put on work-life balance and family-friendly policies. Given these factors, it comes as a shock to most people to learn that according to a report by Maternity Action, evidence suggests as many as 60,000 women are pushed out of work each year due to maternity or pregnancy discrimination.

The report Overdue: A plan of action to address pregnancy discrimination published late last year, pointed to a landmark study carried out by the Equal Opportunities Commission in 2005. It found half of all pregnant women suffered a related disadvantage at work with 30,000 women forced out of their jobs each year. This means that the figure has doubled in eight years.

Pregnancy discrimination remains an under-reported issue for a number of reasons, not least because women often sign non-disclosure agreements as part of their settlements, gagging them from talking about it. Maternity Action also points to the shrinking sources of free legal advice in recent years and cites as ‘most damagingly of all’ the £1,200 upfront tribunal fee for those wishing to pursue a claim. “It makes enforcement action unaffordable for the vast majority,” says Rosalind Bragg, director at Maternity Action, which is calling for the upfront fees to be scrapped or at least reduced to a nominal amount. She adds: “We often hear that people thought the problems [around maternity discrimination] were solved until such time they encounter them at work themselves or talk to friends experiencing problems.”

Out of sight, out of mind?

Kiran Daurka, principal employment lawyer at Slater & Gordon, which acts for claimants in cases of pregnancy and maternity discrimination, says both are age-old issues but since the economic downturn have increased. Its own research, published last August, found that one in four mums who have returned to work believe they have been subjected to discrimination either before or after the birth of their child. “Once the woman goes on maternity we find that she is often forgotten, excluded or sidelined and her job can vanish,” she explains. “Either there is a genuine redundancy situation but she isn’t told about it, or the redundancy situation only arises because she is on maternity leave.”

Daurka adds that managers think “we can do without her” but there is no discussion with the individual or any consultation. “Sometimes the job is distributed among colleagues and never comes back to the woman,” she continues. “Another situation we see is that when the woman does come back, she finds herself on what we call ‘the mummy track’ and her job is dumbed down or, for instance, it’s no longer a client-facing role.’

Governments and employers must act fast to tackle such discrimination if the new proposals for parental leave that come into effect in early 2015 are able to achieve the aim of encouraging more men to share childcare and in doing so drive more gender equality in the workplace. The proposals will give parents the option of sharing the leave between them over the course of a year but Bragg believes many men will be “cautious” about taking their full entitlement because they see how women on or returning from maternity leave are treated.

Indeed, some men have already found themselves victims of this. Michael believes he was discriminated against after taking extended paternity leave for six months. On his return he asked to work flexibly two days’ a week at home so he would be closer to his child’s nursery. Given the job he did, this was perfectly practical. When he met his manager to discuss the request he was shocked to suddenly be accused of gross misconduct and was walked out of the building. A thorough investigation was carried out and the allegations were found to be completely false. Michael won his case and a financial settlement and eventually found employment elsewhere but felt his career was damaged by the events. “The six months I was off when the investigation was taking place also affected me psychologically,’ he says, adding that because of the experience he would be unlikely to request flexible working again.  ‘I’ve no doubt that I was discriminated against because of taking extended paternity and then requesting flexible working.”

Research carried out by the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) also revealed that a number of cultural and operational barriers are still preventing men from taking the extended paternity leave options that are already open to them. The report, Shared opportunity: Parental Leave in UK business, found that only 58% of employees feel their employer is supportive of fathers taking just two weeks, let alone any more.  It also revealed that three-quarters of managers felt parental leave affected the efficiency and productivity of their teams. ILM calls for managers to lead by example when it comes to taking their full parental leave and for leaders to show support of what is available.

When it comes to pregnancy discrimination, Maternity Action similarly demands that leadership is in place to stamp out bad practice and also believes the Government should establish a process for publicly naming and shaming employers found by a tribunal to have broken the law on pregnancy and maternity discrimination. With only 45% of pregnant women being aware of their rights, Bragg also says leaders and managers must raise awareness of these.

Daurka suggests that managers also need to be more familiar with the law and the Acas guidelines. “Most importantly, they need to speak to the individual, keep in touch with them when they are on maternity leave and let them know what is going on,” she says. “If it is a genuine redundancy situation you would consult with employees that are in the office so it shouldn’t be any different.”
 
She is encouraged by shared leave proposals and hope men do take it up as it will make people realise that childcare isn’t just “a women’s issue”. “I hope the unfair treatment will diminish but at the same time it just might mean parents in general will suffer and be treated unfairly,” she says. “We’ve been suggesting changes to the law and one of these is to introduce a positive duty on employers to reasonably accommodate parents returning from a period of leave and, for instance, to make sure they receive adequate training and support on return and that hours offered are workable for them.” 

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