Five things we learned about pregnancy discrimination today

54,000 women lose their jobs each year because of pregnancy discrimination


Today the EHRC published a report on its long awaited and much needed research into pregnancy and maternity related discrimination.

Pregnancy discrimination isn’t just about women being handed their P45 when they tell their boss they’re pregnant. It also covers, amongst other things, pregnant women being passed over for promotion, being denied a bonus or benefits they would otherwise receive such as use of a company car, being denied time off for antenatal appointments, or employers failing to make adjustments in the workplace to protect a pregnant woman.

Until today, the most reliable source of data on pregnancy discrimination was a 10-year-old study carried out by the Equal Opportunities Commission which found that 30,000 women per year were forced out of their jobs because they were pregnant or on maternity leave.

Today’s report updates the previous study and gives more detail. So what does the report tell us?

  • The number of women being discriminated against in pregnancy has gone through the roof

The number of women losing their jobs because of pregnancy discrimination has nearly doubled since the last investigation 10 years ago. The figure now stands at 54,000 women per year.

This figure is even more striking when you consider that the previous EOC survey included more women, for example those who had taken voluntary redundancy, whereas the 54,000 figure in this survey is just women who were made compulsorily redundant (when others in their workplace were not), were dismissed, or were treated so badly by their employer that they felt they had no choice but to leave.

If we were to include all the women who were included in the previous survey’s figure of 30,000, we’d find the figure today had more than doubled.

Not only are pregnant women being forced out of their jobs, one in ten pregnant women are being refused their statutory right to paid time off for antenatal appointments, one in seven women are being given unsuitable workloads (and the figure rises to one in four for disabled women), and one in five face verbal harassment because of pregnancy.

As Sally Brett has pointed out, the numbers may be shocking but it’s the women’s stories behind the statistics that we really need to be listening to.

  • Some women face more discrimination than others

Younger women and single mothers seem to come in for a particularly tough time. More mothers aged under 25 reported being given unsuitable workloads and more young mothers reported being discouraged from attending antenatal appointments.

A fifth of younger mothers reported that they were on the receiving end of harassment in the workplace because they were pregnant.

I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to suggest that there might be a correlation between the sectors where young women tend to work and the types of contracts that they are often on, and the fact that they seem to get such a raw deal. Young women are more likely to be in precarious, casualised forms of work such as agency work or working on zero hours contracts.

Similarly, the report finds that single mothers are singled out for particularly harsh treatment in the workplace. Single mothers are four times as likely as mothers with partners to be dismissed during pregnancy or on maternity leave.

  • Women facing discrimination have limited access to justice

Employment Tribunal fees introduced in 2013 mean that a woman facing discrimination while pregnant or on maternity leave will now have to pay £1,200 to have her case heard in at tribunal. Even if she’s sure she’s got a watertight case, there is no guarantee that she would ever get the fee back as only half of those who won compensation at tribunal ever receive the payment they’re due from their employer.

So it’s no great surprise that the number of claims for pregnancy and maternity related discrimination fell off a cliff after the fees were introduced.

It was suggested by those in favour of fees that the drop was just because trouble makers had been put off making vexatious claims but this new data from the EHRC suggests that there is no shortage of women with valid claims. It’s just that there’s a whopping £1,200 barrier standing between them and the tribunal court.

  • Employers think they’re good at managing pregnancy in the workplace

Not only did the researchers behind this report talk to thousands of women, they also talked to thousands of employers; large and small; public and private; across all sectors.

What is really striking is the mismatch between employers’ perceptions of how good they are at managing pregnancy in the workplace and women’s perceptions of how they’re treated. For example, while only 1 per cent of public sector employers say they have problems managing negative views of pregnancy in the workplace, 16 per cent of women working in the public sector report receiving verbal abuse related to their pregnancy in the workplace.

Similarly, only 5 per cent of employers reported having received any complaints, formal or informal, relating to pregnancy in the past 3 years, whereas 22 per cent of mothers said they had raised issues relating to their pregnancy formally or informally.

However, it’s worth noting that the vast majority of employers, both large and small, were generally supportive of maternity rights and found the practicalities of maternity leave and pay perfectly reasonable and manageable.

  • The impact of discrimination is huge and long-lasting

Losing your job at any time can be devastating, but losing your job when you’ve just had a new baby in many cases has far deeper and longer lasting scarring effects. The motherhood penalty is well documented, as is the fact that the gender pay gap increases with the number of children a woman has.

If the government is as serious as it claims to be about tacking the gender pay gap, taking action on pregnancy discrimination would be a good place to start. Tens of thousands of pregnant women passed over for promotion,  demoted on their return from maternity leave, denied a bonus because they were pregnant or forced out of work altogether could no doubt tell the government a thing or two about the gender pay gap.

The impact isn’t just financial. One in seven women reported that the poor treatment they received at work during pregnancy had a negative effect on their health or stress levels. For single mothers and for women with a long term physical or mental health condition that figure rises to one in four.

The fact that 10 per cent of women are discouraged from attending antenatal appointments has set alarm bells ringing for the Royal College of Midwives. Cathy Warwick has explained in response to these findings:

“Women who miss antenatal appointments miss out on essential screening tests and valuable advice around smoking and nutrition. Evidence shows that missing antenatal appointments can increase the risk of smaller babies, premature babies, miscarriages and still birth. This is particularly important for women with complex health needs.”

So, discriminating against pregnant women is bad for women, bad for babies, bad for family incomes, and bad for the economy. That’s four good reasons why the government and employers should be doing more to tackle it.

Scarlet Harris is the TUC’s Women’s Equality officer. Follow her on Twitter

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4 Responses to “Five things we learned about pregnancy discrimination today”

  1. Perry525

    I hate it when writers use percentages to obscure detail, yet make a point.

    One percent of employers against 22 percent of employees.

    How many of each were asked? Keeping in mind that there are fewer employers and a great many more employees.

  2. JoeDM

    No one can take months or years off from work and not expect it to damage their career.

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