Pregnancy discrimination in the workplace can ostracise talented women

Discrimination continues to hinder the careers of expectant and recent mothers. Small businesses must make sure all employees are treated fairly – or risk missing out on the bountiful talents of working mothers

Pregnancy discrimination in the workplace can ostracise talented women

It can be a daunting experience for new mothers returning to work; their life has been changed by the arrival of their babies and, after a break from the professional world, it can take some time to readjust to the working environment whilst juggling family life. This struggle can then only be exacerbated by any discrimination that a woman might face during and after pregnancy.

Horror stories posted on Mumsnet and Helping Working Mums, the online forum run by law firm Slater & Gordon, show that even in this day and age pregnancy discrimination is still prevalent in society. “Discrimination is often more subtle, which can be more difficult for an employee to prove. Discrimination claims often include allegations of less obvious discrimination,” warns Anne-Marie Balfour, senior associate at Charles Russell Speechlys LLP

Some women online have expressed their concerns at being overlooked for promotions and additional training, some have been disciplined for feeling ill at work and others feel that whilst their boss has been supportive, other colleagues have been discriminatory.

In August 2014, Slater & Gordon conducted a study to expose the extent of the discrimination women were facing upon returning to work. The survey found that out of 500 managers surveyed, a third would prefer to employ a man in his 20s or 30s than a woman of the same age for the fear of them taking maternity leave. Results showed that one in four mums returning to work felt that they had been discriminated against upon announcing their pregnancy or giving birth, whilst a fifth admitted to feeling less valued when returning to the workplace as a mum. These findings suggest that a new approach and better understanding is needed to support mothers and fathers in balancing work and family life.

Employing women of child-bearing age certainly hasn’t hindered the growth of Bec Howard’s business, Cynergy, a digital agency that was recently acquired by Deloitte. “I run a business which is two-thirds full of women who could potentially have a child at any time and this hasn’t stopped us becoming a multi-million pound company. Committed, valued staff work hard and with dedication whether they are at a child-bearing age or not,” says Howard. She adds: “Having children is a deeply enriching experience that builds character and resilience. There is nothing more rewarding than supporting a woman in business through her child-rearing age. You build a loyal, supportive team member that would go the extra mile.” 

Howard believes that good communication between an employer and employees on their plans to start a family are key to create a supportive and flexible workplace. Employer support throughout pregnancy, as well as bereavement or illness, will promote loyalty amongst staff, which means they stay committed to their employers and more often than not, work harder. “Women can be very productive after having children because they know they have tight deadlines. They have to pick the children up at 5 or 6 o’clock from nursery so they have to get the job done within a certain time frame,” says Alice Weightman, MD and founder of Hanson Search and The Work Crowd

Weightman is also a firm believer that good communication between employers and employees is the answer to tackling pregnancy discrimination. Having these honest early conversations before pregnancy or at the time of a pregnancy announcement can help to devise a plan for maternity leave arrangements and what contract the employee will return to post maternity. “As a business we try to keep our business goals and personal goals intertwined. We want an environment where people can talk about that; it is embraced and encouraged. We offer a maternity package; we try to keep people engaged whilst they are on maternity, just to help them feel part of that because the longer you are away from the business, the harder it is to get back,” says Weightman, a working mum, about the practices in her own businesses. 

Employers can further encourage women to return to work by offering maternity packages or incentives for earlier re-entry, as the full maternity leave can be costly and demanding for smaller businesses. Balfour feels that employers should consider their maternity policies. “For some, the statutory scheme is adequate. For others, enhanced maternity arrangements will be necessary in order to keep pace with competitors and attract and retain talent.” Statutory maternity pay is low and – with some childcare costs amounting to as much as £1,000 a month – a healthy maternity package could be the deciding factor for a woman who is planning to have children.

 The government and the labour force are stepping up to encourage more women into board positions, however, Weightman feels more needs to be done to encourage and support women returning to work after pregnancy. Employers need to focus on talented women and be as supportive and flexible as they can be to encourage a strong business ethos with loyal and valued staff. The government themselves have been called upon to lower childcare costs as the UK has some of the highest rates in Europe. Women who freelance or are self-employed are also discriminated against by the government in their amount of keeping-in-touch days available and the rate of statuary maternity pay compared to employed mothers.

Being employed by a company that is sensitive and adaptable to parents’ needs is an attractive trait to working mothers. Often, small businesses can’t afford to pay the salaries offered by big companies so this is one area where its possible to really differentiate yourself from the competition. This will help ensure that you attract the brightest and the best. 

Jade Saunders
Jade Saunders

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