We need a fundamental rethink of legal protections for pregnant women and new mothers at work.
Is it time to bring our maternity laws up to date? (Photo: Creative Commons)
That Britain is now one of the worst performers in Europe in tackling the gender pay gap comes as no surprise to maternity rights campaigners.
One in nine women are dismissed or forced out of work after they have a baby – in blatant disregard of discrimination laws – and three quarters experience some form of unfair and unlawful treatment.
But despite grand statements of the importance of protecting mother’s rights at work, government action has been conspicuously lacking.
The current flurry of gender pay gap reporting offers a useful means of tracking the actions of larger employers on gender equality issues. But it does little to address the problems inherent in the legal framework protecting new mothers.
Discrimination on grounds of pregnancy and maternity is unlawful, but few women have the time, energy or money to pursue legal action and discrimination claims are notoriously difficult to prove. Currently, only 3% of women affected by discrimination pursue a grievance and fewer than one in every hundred go to the employment tribunal.
This is an important issue in terms of strategy to reduce the gender pay gap. Up to two-thirds of the gap – currently 18% overall and 9.4% for full time workers – can be attributed to discrimination, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Gender disparities in pay really kick in when women have babies. Unfair and unlawful treatment of pregnant women and new mothers is, then, a critical point for intervention.
We need to fundamentally rethink how we provide pregnant women and new mothers with the practical and legal support they need to remain in their job during their childbearing years. The recent Unison challenge to employment tribunal fees removed a major financial barrier to women taking legal action – £1,200 is particularly hard to extract from tight family budgets.
What this does is to open up the possibility that women’s employment tribunal claims will rise to their pre-fees level. But since this covers just 3% of the new mothers who experience discrimination, this is clearly not the answer for the vast majority of women.
We need to unpick the different strands of discrimination against new mothers and explore the options both for preventing bad practice by employers and for nipping it in the bud before it results in job loss or demotion.
Our health and safety laws, for example, are so weak that employers are not required to actually talk to their pregnant employee when assessing workplace risk. Many pregnant women leaving their jobs because of health and safety concerns, meaning this is fertile ground for further work.
Another area ripe for attention is redundancy protection. With increased protections operating during maternity leave, employers regularly move redundancies forward into pregnancy or delay them until the woman returns to work.
This forces pregnant women into anxiety-provoking selection processes in late pregnancy and shock redundancies on return to work.
The Women and Equalities Select Committee recommended that the UK adopt the German model of redundancy protection, in which pregnant women and new mothers can be made redundant only in specified circumstances. This is the approach that Maternity Action is pursuing in its new campaign in this area.
Despite receiving the worrying findings of a major EHRC research project into maternity discrimination in 2016, government action has been slow to materialise. The only response to health and safety concerns has been a minor revision to Health and Safety Executive guidance. The review of redundancy protections for new mothers, first promised in January 2017, has not taken place and officials are unable to provide any timeframes.
The UK is currently running second last amongst the larger European economies for female pay inequality, and fifth worst overall. There is not much further to fall in the European league tables. Unless there’s action soon, the government’s dismal pace of action on maternity discrimination means we’re heading towards last place.
Rosalind Bragg is Director of Maternity ActionLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.