A pregnant pause

by Dianah Worman, CIPD Adviser, Diversity and Inclusion

In July the European Commission announced that it was withdrawing its legislative proposal for a Maternity Leave Directorate. The Directive was first proposed in 2008 and the fact that the Brussels co-legislators (the Council and the European Parliament) have been unable to reach agreement on it over the course of five years’ debate shows just how controversial it has been. The core aims of the Directive were to introduce 20 weeks’ paid maternity leave across EU member states, protect pregnant women’s job security and make sure that women were protected upon their return to work. The Directive was dropped because of the unwillingness of many member states to sign up to the proposals, but its exclusion from the Commission’s 2015 work programme caused outcry on the part of many MEPs and lobbyists such as the European Women’s Lobby.

In the UK, women employees have had statutory maternity rights for many years, including the right to 52 weeks of statutory maternity leave and, if they are eligible, up to 39 weeks’ of statutory maternity pay although this is not paid at 100% of salary. The former Coalition Government also introduced a new system of shared parental leave whereby new parents can share statutory leave and pay on the birth of a child if they meet the eligibility criteria.

Discrimination still in evidence
It could be assumed that the UK’s long-standing statutory framework to protect the employment rights of pregnant women would be enough to ensure that such individuals were treated fairly at work. Further, discrimination against pregnant women and those on maternity leave is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010.

However, new research published this summer by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) suggests that more than 50,000 new mothers may be forced out of their jobs in Britain each year. It shows that discrimination against pregnant women is far from a thing of the past in many workplaces. The EHRC carried out the research in partnership with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to investigate the prevalence and nature of pregnancy discrimination and disadvantage in the workplace. The research involved interviews with 3,254 mothers with a child under 2 years old and 3,034 workplaces across the UK in the largest-ever study of its kind. The CIPD formed part of the Academic Advisory Group that provided expertise to steer the research project, and the CIPD’s Senior Diversity network took part in discussion groups with the EHRC to help shape and inform the research and the associated practical guidance.

The study found that 11% 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 to leave their jobs. If replicated across the population as a whole, this could mean as many as 54,000 women losing their jobs each year. The research also found that around one in five new mothers experienced harassment or negative comments from their colleagues, employer or manager when pregnant or returning from maternity leave. A further one in 10 of pregnant employees were discouraged by their employer from attending antenatal appointments.

On the flip side, it should also be noted that many employers, across a range of industries, said they are firm supporters of female staff during and after their pregnancies and find it easy to comply with the law. For example, the study found that:

  • 84% of employers believe that supporting pregnant workers and those on maternity leave is in the interests of their organisations
  • around eight in 10 employers agree that pregnant women and those returning from maternity leave are just as committed to their work as their colleagues
  • two thirds of employers don’t think that pregnancy puts an unreasonable cost burden on the workplace.

CIPD viewpoint
After decades of legal protection including the Equality Act 2010 this unique research from the EHRC reveals that pregnant women continue to be discriminated against by employers in large numbers.

The findings show that the majority of employers have a positive approach to supporting their pregnant staff and female returners. However, there is still a significant number of organisations that are implementing discriminatory working practices. This means that many employers are losing valuable female talent by default. The findings have serious implications for businesses from a much wider perspective – for example, how organisations attract and retain female talent, for the female labour market and for women’s economic independence. Discrimination against pregnant women and women returning from maternity leave will also do nothing to alleviate the stubborn gender pay gap phenomenon. Successive CIPD surveys have shown how much employers value talent and the importance they attach to fostering diversity and inclusion, which makes the serious gap in workplace diversity practices identified by this research all the more alarming.

These survey findings should serve as a wake up call for employers to weed out weak employment practices that cause such negative experiences for mums who want to work. Employers can put in place a number of policies and practices to encourage a healthy workplace culture for pregnant women and employees returning to the workplace after maternity leave. Training for line managers is a vital part of this framework.

Practical steps
HR has a pivotal role to make sure their organisations are not missing out by default regarding diverse talent and that unfair discrimination is rooted out.

The purpose of this important EHRC research is not only to provide a climate check on how pregnancy impacts on women’s chances in the workplace but to find out what good practice looks like based on employers experiences, policies and testimonies.

The EHRC is in the process of speaking to a range of stakeholders including businesses and their representatives, unions, voluntary sector providers and groups representing women in the workplace across England, Scotland and Wales. The purpose is to gather their ideas for positive changes to inform the recommendations in EHRC’s final report which will be published later in the autumn. The EHRC has already produced an employers’ toolkit that provides a bank of pre-prepared letters, check lists and ready-made policy templates for HR practitioners and line managers.

Dianah Worman, OBE (132x106)

Dianah Worman, OBE

Research and Policy Adviser, Diversity

Dianah directs CIPD's diversity research programme and leads the development of good practice guidance to help employers in this challenging and complex field. She currently serves on national level advisory boards and steering committees on issues such as gender equality, age legislation and rehabilitation of offenders. Her current research interests include producing guidance on managing an ageing workforce and on driving diversity progress in business.


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