Will new regulation combat pregnancy and maternity discrimination?

By Rachel Suff, Senior Policy Adviser

The CIPD welcomes the Government’s consultation to strengthen the protection for pregnant women and new parents from redundancy. It’s shocking that research commissioned by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) found one in nine women had been fired or made redundant when returning to work after having a child, or were treated so badly they felt forced to leave. The BEIS study estimates that 54,000 women a year may lose their jobs due to pregnancy or maternity. Discrimination not only disadvantages individuals, but also means that employers are missing out on attracting and retaining valuable female talent.

In 2016 the Women and Equalities Select Committee concluded its pregnancy and maternity discrimination inquiry, demanding urgent action and calling on the Government ‘to publish an ambitious, detailed plan within the next two years or risk a further rise in pregnant women and mothers being forced out of their work.’ The inquiry’s recommendations included changes to health and safety practices, preventing discriminatory redundancies and an increase in protection for casual, agency and zero-hours workers; the consultation that has just been launched addresses some of these issues.

The consultation is an important opportunity for organisations to help shape some far-reaching proposals, such as extending redundancy protection under the maternity and parental leave (MAPLE) regulations to cover a six-month period after a new mother returns to work. It also proposes introducing the same legal protection against redundancy for pregnant women and new mothers on maternity leave, to parents returning from adoption leave or shared parental leave.

Following recommendations from the Women and Equalities Select Committee and the Taylor Review, the consultation also sets out wider plans to tackle pregnancy and maternity discrimination more effectively under the existing enforcement framework of employment and equalities legislation. Another focus for discussion is extending the three-month time limit within which a claim of discrimination can ordinarily be brought to an Employment Tribunal.

The consultation also deals with how Government and other stakeholders can raise awareness of workers' rights in this area, and whether the steps it has taken so far – such as new Acas guidance on pregnancy and maternity discrimination – have been effective, and what further measures should be taken.

Regulation such as the provisions set out in this consultation, play a vital role in setting a statutory floor to protect employees from discrimination on grounds of maternity or pregnancy. However, fostering family friendly and productive cultures where everyone can thrive and perform to their full potential needs more concerted action to build on the legal minimum. Changing the law on its own is no guarantee that organisations will address any underlying issues around maternity and pregnancy discrimination in workplaces; the consultation will therefore hopefully encourage a more in-depth and detailed debate about how implementation of procedure and policy in organisations should be supported by deeper-seated cultural change.

There are wider and serious implications associated with the continued discrimination against pregnant women and women returning to work, not least of which is how it’s contributing to the gender pay gap which is damaging for individuals, business and the wider economy. We need concerted action on a number of fronts to stamp out discrimination and active promotion of gender equality policies such as flexible working regardless of level and role.

The CIPD is involved in a number of initiatives to take forward this aim: for example, as well as co-chairing the Government’s Flexible Working Task Force we are an official supporter of the Working Forward campaign by the Equality and Human Rights Commission to support pregnant women and new parents at work. On this website employers can find some helpful resources about taking effective action and practical case study examples of proactive organisations in this area. Looking ahead, we will also be exploring some of these issues in new Economic and Social Research Council research into employees with caring responsibilities.

The Government’s consultation on extending redundancy protection for women and new parents will end on 5 April.

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