No holding back: How employers can take the lead in tackling maternity discrimination

14 November 2016

At the end of August, a committee of MPs launched a report highlighting the “shocking” and “unacceptable” increase in maternity discrimination at work[1].

More than one in ten (11%) pregnant women and mothers of newborn babies report being either dismissed, made compulsorily redundant when others in their workplace were not, or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their job[2]. More than three in four (77%) say they’ve had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy, maternity leave, and/or on return from maternity leave. At a time when more women are working than ever before, such discrimination brings a huge cost to mothers, businesses and the economy as a whole through loss of talent and preventing employees from realising their full potential.

New research shows that the UK is missing out on up to £170bn worth of economic benefits by not having enough females in employment. PwC’s annual Women in Work Index shows that the UK could boost its GDP by 9% (£170bn) if it could increase the number of women in work to match that of Sweden, the highest performing country[3].

Legal safeguards aren’t enough

The committee report called for stronger legal protection. Yet in reality it will take more than the law to tackle the issue.

The parental and financial pressures of a newborn baby mean that many women are reluctant to take their cases to an employment tribunal. Moreover, much of the discrimination they encounter stems from attitudes within society, which will require a change in thinking rather than just more equality legislation to root them out.

One of the most common perceptions is that someone who’s on parental leave isn’t contributing to the business and therefore shouldn’t be considered for a promotion or a pay rise. An unconscious bias that affects women in particular, is the belief that it is always women that want to take on the lead caring role and assume that men would rather be at work.

Tackling discrimination at source

The need to challenge prejudices within the workplace means that employers’ role in tackling maternity discrimination is critical. This includes rethinking the ways in which an employee’s contribution is assessed to ensure that taking time off to care for a newborn child isn’t a bar to progression. Some employers are taking this further by requiring both fathers and mothers to take parental leave so it isn’t immediately associated with women or a lack of commitment to the business. At PwC we are encouraging dads to take shared parental and so far over 65 dads have.

Other options include setting targets for gender diversity at all levels of the organisation, tracking whether they’re being met and, if not, identifying what biases may be at play. If 70% of promotions are going to men, for example, why is this? How can career advancement be put on a more equal footing?

Legal protection will of course continue to be important. But making it easier for women to uphold their rights is likely to be more effective than additional legislation. Examples include a blanket waiver of employment tribunal fees for maternity-related claims.

Maternity discrimination is a widespread problem that is rooted in deeply ingrained attitudes within society. It therefore can’t be eliminated overnight. But in our experience a tone from the top that says that equality for working mothers is good for our business rather than just a compliance requirement can make a huge difference.

[1] Parliamentary Women and Equalities Select Committee media release, 31 August 2016 (https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/women-and-equalities-committee/news-parliament-2015/pregnancy-and-maternity-report-published-16-17/) launching report on pregnancy and maternity discrimination (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmwomeq/90/9002.htm)

[2] The Women and Equalities Select Committee report cited the findings of ‘Pregnancy and maternity: Related discrimination and disadvantage’, a 2016 study by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which was based on survey interviews with 3,254 mothers and 3,034 employers. The survey findings are based on employers’ and mothers’ perceptions of their experiences. Mothers’ experiences don’t necessarily fall under the legal definition of discrimination (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/509500/BIS-16-145-pregnancy-and-maternity-related-discrimination-and-disadvantage-summary.pdf)

[3] Woman in the work index (https://www.pwc.co.uk/services/economics-policy/insights/women-in-work-index-2016.html)

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