Warning: having a baby could seriously affect your career

Jacky Fleming cartoon

The findings of ‘The Pregnancy Test,’ a new report by the TUC into the treatment of pregnant women and new mothers at work are far from positive. Government and employers must do a lot more to tackle discrimination.

Today, women are protected by law from unfavourable treatment at work because of pregnancy or maternity leave. They can take up to 52 weeks’ leave and receive 39 weeks’ statutory maternity pay. They also have the right to return to the same or similar job after their leave is up. Working mums and mums-to-be have never had it so good. Or have they?

The ‘good news’ and the bad news

Far too many women are still finding that the joy of discovering they are pregnant leads to less positive repercussions for their careers. A recent survey of 2,000 mothers and 500 managers found that six out of ten women felt sidelined at work after announcing their pregnancy and four out of ten managers admitted they were very wary of hiring a woman of childbearing age. Women surveyed online by the TUC in 2014 have also variously reported bullying, demotion, reduced promotion and training opportunities, and increased vulnerability to redundancy. Unfortunately, these experiences and attitudes are still part of a working environment in which a quarter of new mums don’t go back to work (note, this is only a completely free choice for 17% of them) and full- and part-time employment levels for mothers are way below those for men and women without children. The report also finds that the pay gap between men and women widens yet further for mothers returning to work. Since the government restricted access to employment tribunals (to cut a long story short, it now costs employees up to £1,200 to challenge unfair dismissal), employers have also found it far easier to ignore some of the maternity rights enshrined in law. This barrier to redress is felt particularly keenly by mothers on reduced leave pay, who have limited time and energy outside of their childcare responsibilities to invest in an often stressful legal process.

Expecting better

So where’s it going wrong? And what can be done by whom to put it right? The report recommends the following:

  1. The government must abolish Employment Tribunal fees. Statutory maternity rights will be worth little if most women cannot afford to enforce them. Good practice will be undermined if bad managers know they can get away with discrimination.
  2. Employers should recognise and act upon the problem by analysing and publishing information on how many of their female employees return to work after having children and how many are still in post a year later.
  3. Better paid leave for fathers is needed to open up more opportunities for women to progress at work and for men to care for their children.
  4. Employers should be encouraged to design flexible jobs and offer flexible working options such as job shares, part-time and compressed hours, including for working fathers. All parents and carers should be given a stronger basis for challenging when an employer refuses them flexible working.
  5. Employers must learn lessons from pregnancy and maternity discrimination cases brought against them. At the moment, about half of employers fail to implement any changes following a finding of discrimination by a tribunal. These recommendations must be enforceable against the employer.

These measures are needed if we are to see the important progress made over the last 40 years to strengthen maternity rights in law fully reflected in today’s workplace – until then pregnant women and mothers will continue to be unfairly discriminated against.

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