Prejudice against pregnancy

Written By: Sharon Hodgson
Published: April 7, 2017 Last modified: April 10, 2017

Maternity discrimination is an issue that cannot be ignored. It is only right that action be taken to ensure that this persistent issue in our society is ended once and for all. Many people think that maternity discrimination is not a concern that we should focus on, possibly because it does not feature on their radar at all. But it is real, it is happening and it is becoming ever present in our society. Action is needed.

That is clearly documented in the Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) report from last August, which highlighted the fact that pregnant women and mothers are now reporting more discrimination and worse treatment in the workplace than 10 years ago. By some estimates, that discrimination is double what it used to be. According to the Government’s own figures,
one in nine women – 54,000 in total – are forced out of their jobs each year because of being a mother or becoming pregnant.

A hundred years ago, women got the vote for the first time, However, a century on, women still face many hurdles, and all because of their gender. Maternity discrimination has a far broader impact on our society than some may first expect. The financial costs identified affect not only society, but businesses, the Government and the women themselves. A report last year by the EHRC found: “The cost to employers of women being forced to leave their job as a result of… discrimination… was estimated to be around £278.8 million over the course of a year.”

Much of that cost was incurred owing to recruitment and training to replace the woman who was forced out of her job, lost productivity from being down a member of staff and statutory maternity payments if the woman was on leave when she left work. For the Government, maternity discrimination means not only lost tax revenue from women not working, but increased benefit payments when they seek support because they have been forced out of work.

The cost to the Government is between £14 million and £16.7 million a year. The financial losses that women themselves face have been estimated to range from between £28.9 million and £34.2 million. Some 20 per cent of women reported significant financial losses as a result of failing to get a promotion, receiving lower pay increases or bonuses than they would have secured were they not pregnant, or even demotion for becoming pregnant. Pregnancy and children are costly – there is no doubt about it – but the costs incurred by women are unjust, unfair and discriminatory. The gift of pregnancy should never be a cost to a women’s potential or her economic worth.

It is not only the economic costs of women being forced out of the workplace or facing discrimination for becoming pregnant that are a problem, but the social and equality issues that arise. Women’s position in society has come on in leaps and bounds from the time when they were not able to vote, could not work once they were married, had to stay at home or had to defer to a man for every major decision made in their life – as late as the 1970s, women had to have a male guarantor for a mortgage. However, the specific issue of maternity discrimination highlights the fact that the position of women in our society is still tentative. There is still a long way to go.

Maternity discrimination holds us back from achieving that goal of an equal society. We need renewed vigour to tackle the problem, so that we can fully realise our country’s potential, with everyone having a fair chance in life and not having to face discrimination for being who they are. This time last year the EHRC and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills published their findings on the prevalence and nature of maternity discrimination in our society, so that we could fully understand the scale of the problem, which was indeed damning.

The research showed that, of the women surveyed, “77 per cent… had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy; maternity leave; and on their return from maternity leave.”

Such experiences included facing harassment or negative comments related to their pregnancy, struggling to secure flexible working from their employer to manage the demands of pregnancy and subsequent childcare, or, for 9 per cent of women, feeling that they had to leave their job because they were being treated poorly or unfairly.

What women are documented as facing because of pregnancy and impending motherhood is worrying and deeply shocking. Even case studies from Maternity Action’s helpline have documented these shameful occurrences. One woman became so stressed with her working environment, where she was being singled out by her manager and treated appallingly, that she was signed off sick with stress before her maternity leave had even begun. When someone is pregnant, stress is the last thing she needs. She is told to have a calm and radiant time, which was hardly the case for that mother. No woman should face such hurdles in life or feel pressured into choosing between having children or having a career that progresses at the same rate as the careers of their male counterparts.

Following the forensic light shone on the issue by the EHRC, the WEC undertook to investigate maternity discrimination further. Sadly, however, it took until January of this year for the Government to respond to the inquiry’s findings. Included in the report’s recommendations were further calls for action around the health and safety of pregnant women in the workplace, such as placing a duty on employers to conduct an individual risk assessment for new and expectant mothers, all the way to identifying issues around casual, agency and zero-hours workers, who do not have the same pregnancy. and maternity entitlements as women classed as employees.

Although the Government’s commitment to zero tolerance of discrimination against expectant or new mothers in the workplace is to be welcomed, as is the announcement of a consultation on protecting pregnant women against redundancy, sadly the wider response failed to see words leading to action. The Government’s response can easily be seen as a mixture of defending the unacceptable status quo and kicking the issue into the long grass, as if it was something that should be thought about on another day.

Failing to end maternity discrimination would betray our crusading predecessors, who campaigned to improve the position of women in society. We have the power to make the changes possible for women who face discrimination in the workplace for being pregnant or
being a new mother. However, we must also stand up for the women who will come after those facing these challenges now, and ensure that in the future no woman faces discrimination in the workplace for doing what is only natural – having a child.

Sharon Hodgson is shadow minister for public health. This article is an edited extract from a Westminster Hall debate