pregnancy discrimination:patriarchal characters in the workplace strike yet again

Pregnancy is a proxy for gender, and therefore, discrimination against pregnancy is discrimination against women.[1]

In 2015, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published the first findings of their jointly commissioned research into pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the UK. While the research showed evidence of good employer attitudes towards, and treatment of, new and expectant mothers, there were also some very worrying results. One of the most shocking findings was that discrimination had increased since similar research by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) in 2005, with more women now being made redundant or feeling forced to leave their job than a decade ago. Another was that more than three quarters of the women surveyed had experienced a negative or potentially discriminatory experience as a result of their pregnancy or maternity[2]

Yesterday, I began my law internship in ‘one of the very few legal firms in the UK that specialises in employment law for individuals’[3] Since one of my heart’s desires is  to pursue a career in women’s rights and possibly legislative advocacy , and I was going to be working in an employment law firm, I had ruled out the possibility of reviewing any laws that fail to protect and promote the rights of women, nevertheless,  I was excited to expand my legal vocabulary and abandon my favourite legal phrase, ‘feminist jurisprudence’ for the time being. My mum’s advice to be open minded on my first day of work and my compliance, was rewarded at 12.45 pm, fifteen minutes before an anticipated journey to Starbucks to satisfy my craving for a chocolate chip muffin, when I was asked by solicitors at the law firm to do some research on pregnancy discrimination in the UK.

I had always associated craving with pregnancy but had never imagined that ‘pregnancy’ and ‘discrimination’ could be words put side by side. It was no surprise that my pulse rate increased and I expressed a similar shock to the second word of the headline (below) which I saw on my twitter moments linking me to today’s Parliament News:

 ‘Stop shocking workplace discrimination of pregnant women, say MPs’

Although ‘Equality Act 2010’ makes it unlawful to discriminate, or treat employees unfavourably because of their pregnancy, or because they have given birth recently, are breastfeeding or on maternity leave, pregnancy discrimination is still very common with three out of four mothers reporting experienced discrimination in the workplace, during their pregnancy, parental leave or on return to work.

So why has the number of women forced to leave their job because of pregnancy discrimination doubled over the past decade to 54,000?

Why have 1 in 9 working mums been dismissed, made compulsorily redundant or treated so badly they had to leave?

Why was the #PowertotheBump created to unite young mothers who are significantly more likely to experience pregnancy and maternity discrimination with six times as many under 25 year olds than average reporting being dismissed from their jobs after they tell their employer they are pregnant?[4]

Why are statements like ‘I was bullied and harassed because of reasons such as pleas to get time off for ante-natal appointments’ or ‘My contract ended when I told my boss I was pregnant’ relatable to 1 in 5 women in the country?’

Have employers forgotten to promote family friendly workplaces, effective management and open communication despite their knowledge of the Acas statutory Code of Practice to prevent discrimination in recruitment, pay, training and development, selection for promotion, discipline and grievances and redundancy selection[5] ?

Or isn’t it simply because patriarchal members of the workplace and the society are okay with women being forced to choose between having their jobs and protecting their health? (career vs family)

Maybe it is time the government adopt the German style system which could ban companies from making women redundant during and after pregnancy. We cannot keep waiting for the government to create robust frameworks and detailed plans with concrete targets to tackle this issue. Like the MPs stated, there is urgent need for employers to review their health and safety practices and policies concerning ante-natal appointments and, most importantly to increase protection for casual agency and zero-hours workers.

Despite past efforts to increase women’s access to justice and foster a responsive justice system that advances women’s rights, the rule of law still, often rules women out.[6] So is the fifth recommendation of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, ’improving access to justice’ counter-productive? To answer what was partially a rhetorical question, is it not absurd that 77% of women reported potentially discriminatory or negative experiences yet 28% discussed this with their employer? Is it not even more shocking that only 3% went through their employer’s internal grievance procedure and less than 1% went to Employment Tribunal? In my opinion, changes need to be made to the Employment tribunal fee system and an increase in the time limit for a woman’s claim in cases involving pregnancy and maternity discrimination from three to six months needs to be urgently considered.

The Women and Equalities Committee Chair, Maria Miller’s comment that the economy will suffer unless employers modernise their workplace practices to ensure effective support and protection for expectant and new mums is a wakeup call for all. But guess who else suffers?

Yes, the NHS.

If women are denied their rights and continue to be discriminated against, they are likely to have high levels of stress, anxiety and depression which according to Cathy Warwick, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, could negatively impact women’s health and have devastating effects on their babies hence ,costly implications for the NHS.[7]

So what else can we do? Since 84% of employers believe that supporting pregnant workers and those on maternity leave is in the interests of their organisation, it is only fair that employers improve their practice and health and safety procedures as mentioned. The government needs to also show leadership for change by working with employers to create family friendly working conditions and improve access to information, advice and justice whilst monitoring progress to track the pace of change through surveys and research to ensure that pregnancy discrimination is reduced.

But most importantly, we must put the patriarchal members of the workplace to shame so they do not strike again.

 

[1] The Honorable Judges Kanne,Wood & Evans

Griffin v. Sisters of Saint Franics,Including.,489 F.3d 838(7TH Cir. 2007)

[2] http://www.parliament.uk

[3] http://www.landaulaw.co.uk/about

[4] http://www.equalityhumanrights.com

[5] http://www.acas.org.uk

[6] unwomen.org

[7] huffingtonpost.co.uk