Maternity Leave: What’s Not Working And How To Fix It

Having a baby can bring about its fair set of challenges, but one that expectant mothers should not have to face is the threat of encountering discrimination in the workplace.
At the end of August, maternity leave related discrimination made UK headlines after a major report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission estimated that around 54,000 women in the UK lose their job each year over a pregnancy, and that 77% of UK mothers surveyed felt they’d had a negative or discriminatory experience in telling their work they were pregnant. Elsewhere, the Citizens Advice Bureau has seen a 25% increase in women seeking consultation about pregnancy and maternity leave related discrimination so far this year. It found that women are having their working hours reduced, being put on zero hours contracts and in some cases, are forced to leave their jobs – all because they’ve decided to have a baby. Roxanne Hobbs runs a consultancy that helps women navigate the professional minefield that is taking maternity leave. She says this type of discrimination is not a new problem, but one that is simply coming to the fore more recently. “I’d be surprised if the number of incidents of discrimination in the workplace has risen,” she told Refinery29 over the phone, “but the topic of equal rights for men and women in the workplace is more prevalent, meaning women are more aware that they have a voice on the issue.” Personally, Roxanne woke up to the debate when she looked at the numbers and saw more women than men entering businesses at grad level, but more men at the top of organisations and on higher salaries. “The key drop off was around maternity,” explains Roxanne, so she started a service that could help women know their rights around maternity leave, navigate a successful maternity leave, and come back to work firm in what their career goals were. After doing this for a while, it soon became clear to Roxanne that, while it was useful to help individual women in keeping their career alongside their decision to be a mother, the problem of discrimination against pregnant women was bigger than any one individual. “When I started coaching women around their maternity leave, I found that the messages the women were getting was that they needed fixing, whereas actually, it was the culture, the law and the way the law is enforced that needed to change.”

Unequal by law

Until recently, the law has made it so that women have a right to more parental leave than men. The government’s rules around maternity and paternity leave are complicated (and can take longer than nine months to get your head round), but generally, when a woman has a baby, she must take a minimum of two weeks leave after giving birth in order to recover. After that, she is usually entitled to a total of 52 weeks of maternity leave, and – providing she’s been in her job for more than 26 weeks – to statutory maternity pay for 39 weeks. That’s a basic minimum salary of £140 a week. There are a number of caveats to UK maternity leave law (if you’re freelance, for example, it doesn’t apply to you), and exceptions, like if you work for a company who decide to pay you more than statutory maternity pay (in which case you’re lucky). But generally: 52 weeks leave, 39 weeks’ basic pay. And for the woman’s partner? Generally he can only take up to two weeks paid paternity leave. Anything else has to be negotiated with his employer, and won’t necessarily be paid. If this sounds unfair to you, you’re not alone. In 2015, the Coalition government decided to do something about the disparity; they brought in Shared Parental Leave and Statutory Shared Parental Pay, which basically means that a pregnant woman can split her 52 weeks of leave and 39 weeks of statutory pay up with her partner. Whoever takes the leave gets 90% of their salary for the six weeks following birth, and a statutory £140 a week for the remaining three weeks. The couple can even decide to take the leave at the same time, spending the leave with their child together. A great idea in theory, right? But something’s not working in practice: according to a recent report in The Telegraph, less than 3% of couples took up this option in the first quarter of this year. When a firm called My Family Care asked couples why this was, most said that the statutory level of pay wasn’t high enough for them to support their new family; some women said they didn’t want to share their leave with their partner, and a large proportion of interviewees said it just wasn’t a scheme their employer encouraged. However, the most notable reason given for why Shared Parental Leave won’t seem to stick was a worrying one: more than half the men surveyed were worried it would negatively impact their career to take time off.

when asked why they wouldn’t take paternity leave, a lot of men said “because my colleagues didn’t do it”

Harriet Minter, Women In Work Expert
Harriet Minter is a freelance journalist and women in work expert. She asks: Who can blame men for not wanting to take paternity leave? They see what maternity leave does to women’s careers and they’re quite logically put off. “Men are concerned that if they take significant paternity leave, they’ll be taken off certain projects, and when they come back, people will be judging the hours they’re doing or questioning their commitment. They also don’t know what the response would be; when asked why they wouldn’t take paternity leave, a lot of men said 'because my colleagues didn’t do it' or 'because my boss didn’t do it'. Nobody wants to be that guy who sticks their head above the parapet.” Ultimately, says Harriet, we’re stuck in a vicious cycle that needs to be broken. If more men took paternity leave they would be creating a culture where it was OK for men to take paternity leave, and a world where women would no longer be treated differently to their male counterparts when it comes to having children.

The solution?

James Wallman is a forecaster who has had his predictions documented in publications spanning the New York Times to Time magazine. He is optimistic that a cultural change is afoot, but we need to be patient; “Cultural changes (in general) take years to happen. It would be truly weird if suddenly shared parental leave was a 50/50 split – after all, it's been ingrained in our society that it's women who take the full leave for a long, long time. But as the pay gap reduces, as the responsibility gaps change – such as more men taking a hands-on caring role, with more women as the key bread-winner – of course more men will take more of the Shared Parental Leave.” The benefit for fathers, he says, isn’t just more time with their kids, but less pressure on men generally to be a household’s primary earner, as has traditionally been the case. “It has benefits for society too,” he adds: “More rounded kids, more caring and empathetic men...” He concludes that “the more that post-binary identities and gender fluidity become acceptable, they'll affect our views on who does what when it comes to raising kids.”

“Believe in yourself and your right to pursue a career whilst pregnant and as a new Mum.

Roxanne Hobbs, Hobbs Consultancy
A vital question remains: How do we get employers to back the change?
Harriet thinks companies need to encourage a fairer culture by incentivising their employees to take up Shared Parental Leave. "While companies now offer both maternity and paternity leave, you'll often find that maternity leave will have been enhanced (meaning women will be paid more than the statutory amount set out by the government) but paternity leave will only be at statutory levels. When that happens it makes more financial sense for the woman to take the time, rather than sharing it. And so men are left out of childcare again. Enhanced paternity leave could help to bring about more equality.” And in the meantime, Roxanne maintains that we need a crackdown on the way companies are circumnavigating maternity leave law: “Professional women are 'managed out of the business' and given a pay off so they can't talk about what happened and non professional women are increasingly on short term or zero hours contracts with little legal protection. What has happened is that business has found a way around the laws on maternity leave – in a different way at each end of the professional spectrum.” We also need to find a solution to the lack of appetite a pregnant woman or new mum will have to take the legal route as that is also exploited currently, says Roxanne, highlighting the recent 'Pregnant then Screwed' campaign, which aimed to shine a light on the murkiest of practices in corporations and encourage women to take action. “If something feels off,” she says, “speak to trusted friends or colleagues and seek legal advice.” But most importantly? “Believe in yourself and your right to pursue a career whilst pregnant and as a new mum. Being discriminated against because of your sex is illegal in this country. You are not lucky to be in your job. They are lucky to have you.”