Pregnancy discrimination is a lasting injustice – we need to find the political will to fight it

Seventy-seven per cent of new mothers experience discrimination or negative treatment


In Theresa May’s first speech as Prime Minister, she spoke of fighting the injustice of women earning less than men and the importance of supporting families who are ‘just getting by’.  

You might think that this would translate into action on pregnancy and maternity discrimination, one of the major contributors to the gender pay gap and a swift route into poverty for many new families.  You would be wrong.

In March 2016, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the then Department of Business Innovation and Skills released research into the nature and incidence of pregnancy and maternity related discrimination.  Drawing on interviews with over 3,000 women and 3,000 employers, the researchers found that 77 per cent of pregnant women and new mothers experience discrimination or negative treatment at work, 11 per cent lose their jobs through discrimination and another 20 per cent reported harassment or negative comments.

These are significant figures warranting swift attention from Government.  Even more worrying is the dramatic increase over the past decade. In 2006, the Equal Opportunities Commission found that 30,000 women each year lost their job as a result of pregnancy discrimination.  By 2016, the numbers had jumped to 54,000.

The response from Government has been weak.  A very modest set of recommendations from the EHRC have been accepted in part only, and there is little evidence of action on those which have been accepted.  

Business Minister, Margot James, states that tackling pregnancy and maternity discrimination is a key priority for her and for the Government. Yet, the Government’s response to the Women and Equalities Committee report on pregnancy discrimination remains outstanding. And James is apparently too busy to meet with Maternity Action, which is leading campaigning in this area.

Leaving it to individual women to resolve disputes with individual employers hasn’t halted the deterioration in women’s job security over the past ten years and is unlikely to prevent further decline in the future.  On the contrary, employees face an ever worsening environment to exercise their rights from the loss of advice service funding, cuts to legal aid and the introduction of employment tribunal fees.  

The scale of pregnancy and maternity discrimination warrants a systemic response.  The costs to women of losing their job through pregnancy discrimination, just in the first year, is between £47 million and £113 million. Losses flowing from long term impacts on their career have not been calculated.  Employers face costs of £279 million as a result of losing women employees through discrimination, making clear that the negative impacts are felt across the economy.

With one in every 25 pregnant women leaving their job because of health and safety concerns, we need to revisit how we incorporate risks to pregnant women and new mothers into health and safety management.  And rethink how we support women to enforce their rights to a safe working environment.

We need to push employers to evaluate their retention rates for women who have babies.  In the same way that Gender Pay Gap reporting is prompting employers to pay attention to rates of pay, reporting on retention rates will make it more difficult to sweep this issue under the corporate carpet.  As many women encounter problems when their flexible working arrangements kick in, the reporting should target 12 months after mothers are back at work, not the day of return from maternity leave.  

While women require better access to information and advice on their rights at work, there is also a need for employers to have a central, consolidated source of information on their obligations.  This is a particular issue for smaller employers who have to find the time to search up to five Government agency websites to clarify their responsibilities.

Maternity Action, working with unions, parenting groups and advice agencies under the banner of the Alliance for Maternity Rights, has developed an Action Plan to put an end to pregnancy discrimination in the workplace.  The recommendations cover health and safety, access to advice and information, strategies to improve employer practice, access to justice and the leadership role of Government.

Few of the recommendations in the Action Plan cost money; most are merely questions of political will.  The challenge is to find that will.

Rosalind Bragg is director of Maternity Action

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