Discriminating against women because they are pregnant or might become pregnant is illegal under the Equality Act 2010, but new statistics reveal a worrying proportion of British employers hold attitudes that are decades behind the law.
Research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) found that more than half (59%) of employers believe a woman should have to reveal whether she is pregnant during the recruitment process; nearly half (46%) think it is reasonable to ask whether a woman has small children; and over a third (36%) believe it is okay to ask women about their plans to have children in the future.
YouGov, which conducted the research on behalf of the EHRC, questioned 1,106 senior decision makers in business to decipher their attitudes towards pregnancy and maternity discrimination.
The commission described the findings as "depressing" and evidence that "we are still living in the dark ages"
Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the EHRC, said: "It is a depressing reality that, when it comes to the rights of pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace, we are still living in the dark ages."
She said it should be more widely known that it is illegal not to appoint a woman because she is pregnant or might become pregnant. "It’s clear that many employers need more support to better understand the basics of discrimination law and the rights of pregnant women and new mothers."
In addition to their outdated recruitment attitudes, a sizeable chunk (44%) of employers believe women should work for a company for at least a year before having children, and the same number said women who have more than one child while in the same job can be a "burden" to their team.
Many questioned pregnant women's commitment to their work, with 40% saying they have seen at least one woman "take advantage" of her pregnancy (whatever that means). Roughly a third also said becoming pregnant and being a new mother suggests a woman is "generally less interested in career progression" than other employees in their company.
Joeli Brearley, founder of the pregnancy discrimination campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, was sacked when she was four months pregnant with her first child by a children’s charity in the northeast of England, where she worked on a contract basis. Her employer gave no explanation and she was left unemployed with a mortgage to pay.
Given her own experience, Brearley said she was "not at all" surprised by the EHRC's report. "We have known for a long time that discrimination occurs at the recruitment phase but it is so hard to prove," she told Refinery29. "Most employers won’t ask outright if you are planning on having children, they will ask other subtle questions about your life to glean the information. The statistics show the bias that exists among employers towards women of childbearing age."
Pregnancy and maternity discrimination is having a negative impact on the gender pay gap, business and our economy, she continued. "If an employer is not recruiting someone because they are worried they will have children, they are not choosing the best person for the job and are missing out on a large talent pool."
Pregnant Then Screwed is calling for a greater focus on the economic reasons for not discriminating against women on the basis of pregnancy and maternity leave. To prevent the problem, it is also lobbying for, among other things, subsidised childcare from 6 months old; access to six weeks' leave at 90% of pay for both parents; mandatory reporting by companies on how many flexible working requests are made and how many are granted; and an increase in the time limit by which women must raise a tribunal claim against an employer.
"If we look at countries like Sweden where they have high-quality, subsidised care and legislation which supports dads taking time out to look after their kids, far fewer employers discriminate and they have a really strong economy."
The EHRC has launched Working Forward, a campaign to improve workplaces for women and new parents by encouraging companies to pledge to treat them fairly, and has so far enlisted 280 organisations including Transport for London, Royal Mail and Barclays.
The commission is also encouraging people to share their experiences of pregnancy and maternity discrimination with the hashtag #maternitywrongs. Women and new parents can also share their stories anonymously with Pregnant Then Screwed.
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