On Tackling Maternity Discrimination the UK Lags Behind Europe and the US

Pregnancy and childbirth are supposed to be some of the most amazing and awe-inspiring events in a woman’s life, but for working mothers, this milestone is often at the cost of their position at work or even their entire career.

This is due in large part to maternity discrimination. Many women are penalised or treated poorly for making the choice to have children, even if their pregnancy does not affect their job performance, and they may find that their position has been made redundant or even eliminated entirely upon their return from maternity leave. Why are these behaviours continuing to rise, and what can we do to help to eliminate maternity discrimination?

Until recently, there weren’t a lot of actual numbers for us to look at when it comes to maternity discrimination. The numbers we’ve finally collected are alarming at best and downright upsetting at worst. Upwards of 77% of women have reported experiencing some form of maternity discrimination either during their pregnancy, during their leave or once they have returned to work. One in 20 reports that their position has been made redundant or been eliminated entirely by the time they return after maternity leave.

Imagine leaving for vacation or taking time off for an illness or injury, only to find that your job had been made redundant upon your return

In January 2017, business minister Margot James announced the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Policy would be taking up a zero-tolerance policy regarding maternity discrimination. But as of the time of this writing, there have been no actions taken in regard to this announcement, and there is no indication of any sort of legislative change planned to protect women during their maternity and leave.

Imagine leaving for vacation or taking time off for an illness or injury, only to find that your job had been made redundant upon your return. This is the reality for many women who have decided that it is the right time for them to start a family.

According to current law, a woman whose job has been made redundant during her leave must be placed first in line for any other suitable positions within the company. She doesn’t have to compete for the position if she is returning from maternity leave.

Unfortunately, it only applies to women who are currently on leave. Those who have just returned and those that haven’t yet taken leave are still at risk and have no legal protection.

Many other European countries, such as Germany, have made it entirely unlawful for businesses to make a woman’s position redundant during their pregnancy, their maternity leave or after they have returned to work. Similar laws are in place in the United States. The UK is one of the only developed countries remaining that only offers protection to pregnant women while they are on leave.

¾ of working women in the UK believe that being pregnant puts them at a disadvantage

Some critics of the report claim that it is biased because it is based on the way women feel they have been treated, rather than on statistics surrounding maternity discrimination cases, but the point remains the same — women feel that they have been treated differently or poorly simply because they have chosen to start a family.

It is unlikely that the government will decide to make the changes that are really needed to protect pregnant women and new mothers from having their jobs taken from them either before or after they have their new babies.

The fact that more than ¾ of working women in the UK believe that being pregnant puts them at a disadvantage is more telling than anything. It shows the insidiousness of this problem. Women may delay having children or choose not to return to the workplace once their maternity leave is over because of the way they’ve been treated prior to their leave or the way they believe they’ll be treated once they return.

We still have to wait and see what effect the report has, if any, on upcoming government legislation. There have been no ripples yet that we’ve seen, but it is definitely an area to watch in the upcoming year. Starting a family shouldn’t be something that puts a woman’s career in jeopardy. Nowadays women are allowed and encouraged to work outside the home, so why is it so hard for the government to protect them when they choose to?



More about the author

About the author

Born in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Kate Harveston is a recent college graduate and an aspiring journalist. She enjoys writing about social change and human rights issues, but she has written on a wide variety of other topics as well.

She blogs on social and cultural issues at  Only Slightly Biased.

Follow Kate on Twitter.

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