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Fighting rising pregnancy discrimination


Pregnant then Screwed, ECHR report, pregnancy discrimination at workThe government is failing to protect women from pregnancy discrimination in the UK.

The number of women who say they suffered discrimination when pregnant, or when they had a new baby, has risen dramatically over the last ten years.

From 45 per cent to 75 per cent, according to research undertaken by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

Eleven per cent of the 3,200 women interviewed in the study reported having been dismissed, made compulsorily redundant where their colleagues were not, or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their jobs.

On a national scale, this could mean to up to 54,000 pregnant women lose their jobs every year.

The research also found that 1 in 5 new mothers experienced harassment or negative comments from their colleagues, employer or manager, when pregnant or on returning from maternity leave.

Shockingly, it was also revealed that 10 per cent of women were discouraged from attending antenatal appointments by their employers, posing a risk to the health of mother and baby.

In addition, 70 per cent of employers feel they should be allowed to ask a woman if she’s pregnant when she applies for a job, and 25 per cent think they should be allowed to ask a woman if she plans to become pregnant.

In 2016, more than 40 years after the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act was introduced, these figures are completely unacceptable.

And, clearly, simply having a law in place isn’t enough to prevent widespread discrimination.

The research suggests that societal attitudes towards women and pregnancy, particularly in the workplace, need to change.

And we still need to create an environment in which women do not feel like they will have to make career sacrifices if they decide to have children.

The study was the largest of its kind ever undertaken in the UK, and was commissioned by former Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson in 2013, during her time as Minister for Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs.

The EHRC has six suggestions for tackling discrimination:

The government shows leadership for change.
Employers offer more family friendly workplaces and open communication.
There is better access to information and advice for women and employers.
Health and safety risks are better managed by employers.
Access to justice is improved for women bringing claims.
Progress towards a fairer workplace is tracked.

Swinson is now the chair of Maternity Action, the UK’s leading charity committed to ending inequality and improving the health and wellbeing of pregnant women, partners and young children.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour recently, she referred to the ‘good intentions gap’, saying: “More than 4 in 5 employers happily say that of course it’s in their interests to support women in their workforce who are pregnant or new mothers, but then so many women have some kind of negative experience.

“I think one of the things it shows is that you can have great HR [Human Resources] policies in place but for most women, throughout the duration of their pregnancy it’s the actions of their line managers and their colleagues that will be shaping how they feel in terms of whether they’re being supported.

“Sometimes the reality doesn’t quite match up to what the policy says on paper, so a more concerted effort is needed from employers to make sure that they’re not just saying that it’s in their interests, but they’re actually making sure that the experience of women is as it should be.”

Also speaking on the programme was Joeli Brearly, who founded the online campaign Pregnant Then Screwed after she was sacked when her employers found out she was pregnant.

Brearly told presenter Jenni Murray, “what we hear so often at Pregnant Then Screwed is that the law is actually really robust, discrimination is illegal, but women are unable to use the law to protect themselves, which is why it’s so important that we have clear leadership from the government on this”.

When asked about her own experience and why she didn’t take up a case, Brearly said: “I did try, I looked for advice and I couldn’t get any that helped me.

“I ended up employing a solicitor and they sent a letter to the charity who just threw it in the bin – that cost me £300.

“Then I discovered I was having a high risk pregnancy and the doctor told me not to get stressed.

“Obviously doing a tribunal is very stressful so the choice was taken out of my hands”.

Swinson and Brearly have highlighted the two key problems that women face with regard to pregnancy discrimination, and it seems that a lot of women are left feeling rather vulnerable and helpless.

At a time when the cost of raising children is becoming increasingly high, women are reluctant to stand up to their employers for fear of losing their job, the income from which they need more than ever when preparing for a new arrival.

And for women who do lose their job as a result of falling pregnant, there appears to be a lack of people and procedures in place to protect them – if they do want to prosecute their employer, they have to go through a lengthy, costly and stressful process, something that no mother-to-be should have to endure.

It is evident that we are failing women in the workplace, and the government must treat pregnancy discrimination as a matter of urgency and take a strict, clear stance on the issue.

It should not be left to campaigns and charities to do the government’s work for them in ensuring that employers are not breaking the law, and offering help and support to pregnant women and new mothers.

Pregnant Then Screwed is campaigning for four changes to the law to help reduce discrimination and create a more equal playing field for men and women in the workplace.

The key changes they want are:

An increase in the amount of time you have to take a case of pregnancy or maternity discrimination to Tribunal from 3 months to 6 months:

If you are a victim of discrimination you will find that to tackle this through legal proceedings you have only 3 months less one day from the point of discrimination.

This will usually come at a time when you are exhausted and vulnerable.

Either you are pregnant and therefore a Tribunal risks the health of the mother and unborn child through stress or you have just had a baby, in which case making your lunch every day can feel like climbing Mount Everest, masterminding a Tribunal would be nigh-on impossible.

This time restriction means that less than 1 per cent of discrimination cases go to Tribunal;

Improved legislation for those who are self-employed or are on temporary contracts:

With more and more women doing work on temporary contracts and being self employed, I believe it is really important to improve support and legislation to protect these women if they become pregnant. Currently the law is unclear so many employers feel comfortable with terminating contracts at the point of pregnancy;

Paternity leave of three months on 90 per cent of pay; and flexible working options to be stated on job adverts.

Pregnant Then Screwed is also place where you can tell your story anonymously, so that we can expose this injustice and together make a case for recognition, respect and change.

Or if you need (free) legal advice you can call Pregnant Then Screwed’s helpline on: 0161 930 5300.

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