Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination in the Workplace

Recent statistics from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission report that 77% of mothers have had a negative or possibility discriminatory experience during pregnancy, maternity leave, or on return from maternity leave. This is a huge percentage. That being said, 84% of UK employers also reported that they felt it was in the best interest of their organisation to support pregnant women and those on maternity leave. While some discriminatory treatment stems from unscrupulous employers and a negative attitude towards pregnancy and maternity, clearly, in light of the above statistics, better education is needed for employers when managing pregnant employees and mothers on, or returning from, maternity leave. Ignorance cannot be an excuse to breaching an employee’s rights.

Employees who are pregnant or on maternity leave

During your pregnancy and maternity leave, you should not be put under the additional pressure of fearing whether you will have a job to go back to, or bearing the brunt of discriminatory behaviour.

All workers are protected against discrimination if they are dismissed or treated unfairly because of pregnancy. There is also extensive protection against discrimination if you are treated unfairly because you have taken maternity leave or exercised your maternity rights. Women are also protected if they are sick as a result of their pregnancy. This sickness absence should be recorded separately and cannot be used in disciplinary or redundancy proceedings as part of a total sickness absence.

If you experience any form of discrimination or negative attitude as a result of your pregnancy or maternity leave, you should make a record of this, including what happened, who was involved and the time and date. If you feel comfortable to do so, you should exercise your statutory right to raise a grievance with your employer. Your employer then has a duty to investigate this and provide you with an outcome. If you do not agree with the outcome, your employer must provide you with a right to appeal.

If you are dismissed because of your pregnancy or maternity leave, including a redundancy situation, you should appeal the dismissal. If your employer does not provide the right to appeal, this is another breach of your rights. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s statistics, 11% of pregnant women feel forced to leave their jobs, so you should also be aware of your right to claim constructive dismissal.

If you experience pregnancy or maternity discrimination, you are able to make a claim to the Employment Tribunal. We will often take pregnancy and maternity cases on a no win no fee basis, and have extensive experience in bringing claims for pregnancy and maternity discrimination. We are also able to assist you in advising on your rights regarding returning to work, including your right to request flexible working.

Employers managing pregnant employees or those taking, or returning from, maternity leave

While some employers, unfortunately, do have a negative view of working mothers, in our experience this largely stems from a lack of understanding of the relevant legislation and protections offered to employees, and the benefits working mothers can offer to an employer.

A new initiative, ‘Working Forward’, founded by 8 of the UK’s largest employers, is seeking to eradicate discrimination against working mothers and encourage other organisations to put in place best practices to attract, develop and retain women at work. Together with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, this campaign is asking employers to pledge to improve the workplace for pregnant women and those on or returning from maternity leave.

Although individual contracts of employment may provide more generous maternity rights, you should be aware of the minimum statutory protections offered to all employees throughout their pregnancy and maternity leave. These include being allowed reasonable paid time off to attend antenatal appointments, an entitlement to 26 weeks’ ordinary maternity leave followed by 26 weeks’ additional maternity leave, and the general right to return to the job role that she was in prior to her maternity leave. Unfortunately, statistics provided by the Equality and Human Rights Commission show that 10% of mothers report that their employer discouraged them from attending antenatal appointments.

It is key that you should communicate with your employee, however do not patronise. It is not an employer’s place to make a decision for an employee who is pregnant or on maternity leave regarding her career progression, working hours or stress levels she is capable of handling. You should offer your employee to opportunity to work up to 10 “keeping-in-touch” days throughout her maternity leave, although it is not compulsory for the employee to agree to these.

You should bear in mind the benefits of pregnant women and those on or returning from maternity leave. Statistics provided by the Equality and Human Rights Commission show that the main benefits cited by employers are increased staff retention and creating a better morale among employees. Encouraging and retaining employees also cuts recruitment and training costs of new staff.

We are able to assist and provide guidance to employers regarding pregnancy and maternity rights. It is advisable to have policies in place for pregnancy and maternity, which enables the employee to clearly access information about their rights and the relevant processes and procedures. This is also useful to guide managers on how to manage working mothers. We are able to assist in drafting bespoke policies encompassing the statutory rights, tailored to suit your workplace. In the event that you are taken to an Employment Tribunal, we are also able to assist in defending claims in a cost effective manner.