Are there any answers to the increase in pregnancy discrimination?

I AM shocked and baffled by the recent reports of a rise in pregnancy discrimination in the workplace.

Research carried out in 2015 for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) revealed that 11% of the mothers interviewed reported being either dismissed, made redundant, or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their job.

One in five mothers also said they had experienced harassment or negative comments related to pregnancy or flexible working from their employer or colleagues.

These findings suggest a significant increase in pregnancy discrimination since the last study of this nature was conducted in 2005.

The Citizens Advice Bureau has provided further evidence of this rising trend, with a reported 25% increase in women looking for help and support on pregnancy discrimination.

The CAB’s advice section on their website was downloaded 22,000 times in the last year.

What could possibly explain this increase?

Here we are in 2016, a time when business engagement with gender equality is at its highest.

For many years now we have seen a growing body of evidence from the likes of McKinsey, Catalyst and Deloitte, demonstrating strong links between gender diversity and corporate success.

The boards and shareholders of UK plc have started to accept, and even promote, the business case for gender diversity – seeing the benefits to performance if the company can attract women to the workforce, retain them and progress them through to senior management.

An essential aspect of this is supporting pregnant employees and those returning from maternity leave.

The legal framework has also developed an increasing level of protection for pregnancy and maternity in the workplace.

The legislation has expressly prohibited pregnancy and maternity discrimination since 2005.

And yet, despite these advances in corporate culture and in law, it seems that more employees now suffer discrimination on these grounds than before.

The possible causes are difficult to discern.

Unpleasant as it is, one conclusion must be that certain employers are willing to exploit the weaker position of pregnant employees or those on maternity leave, particularly in times when the business environment is tough.

Another cause may be the UK’s preference for flexible forms of working arrangements. The proportion of women in these types of jobs is fairly high.

Workers employed on zero hours or ad hoc contracts have fewer employment protection rights and there tends to be less awareness on the part of both employer and worker that the legal prohibition of pregnancy discrimination still applies.

I struggle to identify other possible causes.

However, I do think that these reports demonstrate the inherent ineffectiveness of the legal system itself.

The law sets out prohibitions on discrimination, but ultimately the employee herself must sue the employer and win in order to redress the wrongdoing.

Pursuing a discrimination claim at an employment tribunal carries with it an upfront fee of £1,200, and often hefty legal costs too.

These hurdles are all the more challenging for a potential litigant who is pregnant or who has recently had a baby.

I will explore this topic, among others, at the Women Mean Business session on September 16.

The annual Employment Law Conference on November 17 will also give a comprehensive update on recent discrimination cases.

  • The annual Employment Law Conference – at which Katie is speaking – takes place on November 17 this year at the AECC.
    The full-day event equips delegates with the essential information, knowhow and skills to deal with the demands of employment law and personnel management in an enjoyable way in the company of fellow professionals.
    You can read another blog by Katie, published previously, as well as employment law blogs by fellow speakers Sandy Kemp of Clyde & Co, Toni McAlindin and Euan Smith of Pinsent Masons.