Last week, MPs urged better job protection for expectant and new mothers and #pregnancydiscrimination trended on Twitter. It trended because thousands of women read the news story, nodded their heads and said, ‘that happened to me’. It happened to me despite my employer being in all other ways lovely. It happened to me even though I’m sure it wasn’t intentional. It happened to me even though I’ve never been the type to lay down and take unfair treatment. It blindsided me.
And, like thousands of women, I didn’t fight back. I needed my job – not only for the money, but also because I was emotionally invested in my career. I was afraid to “make a fuss”. And, like thousands of women, even now I won’t speak up about the specifics of what happened in this public forum, in the worry it would further harm my career. Even sharing these few words make me worry about it.
Pregnancy discrimination – troubling statistics
Here are just a few of the troubling facts about women’s experiences of employment discrimination before, during and after pregnancy.
- 40% of managers in a reputable survey admitted they are wary of hiring a woman of childbearing age.
- A government report found 77% of mothers felt they had a negative and/or discriminatory experience related to pregnancy, maternity leave and returning to work (compared to 45% a decade ago).
- The same report found that 51% of mothers who had their flexible working request approved felt it resulted in negative consequences.
- Surveys have shown that more than half of working mums have had their flexible working request turned down.
- Mothers who return to work end up earning a third less than men.
- In order to raise concerns at a tribunal, you need to pay £1200, and there is a 3-month time-limit for making a claim.
Standing up for your employment rights
If you’re a pregnant woman worrying about the future of her career, or a woman on maternity leave trying to make arrangements to return to work whilst managing the nightmare of childcare, or a woman who already feels she’s been poorly treated at work just because she had a baby, here are some tips and resources for standing up for yourself.
When you’re pregnant at work
- If you’re feeling okay during the first trimester, try to get pay rises, promotions or assignments to important projects sorted as much as possible before you announce your pregnancy. You are not legally obligated to tell your employer until 15 weeks before the beginning of the week your baby’s due.
- On the other hand, if you’re feeling very unwell in the first trimester, you should tell your manager. It is illegal for you to receive any unfavourable treatment as a result of time off or breaks taken due to pregnancy-related illness. There is more information on this pregnancy sickness support website.
- If you are eligible to join a union in your profession, join the union now if you haven’t already. They will give you support and legal advice if things go wrong later. Sometimes, being a member of a union will save you from trouble in the first place. I wish I had joined my union before my first pregnancy.
- You are entitled to paid time off for antenatal appointments.
- Your employer must make sure that your working conditions do not put you and your baby at risk. Maternity Action have a useful info sheet about your health & safety rights.
- If you experience a miscarriage, you are entitled to paid sick leave and no unfavourable treatment. You may also be entitled to paid sick leave if you experience an exceptionally traumatic pregnancy. If you experience a stillbirth or neonatal death, you are entitled to all of your maternity leave and rights. The Working Families website has a useful summary of your pregnancy bereavement rights.
All about maternity leave
- The Citizens Advice Bureau offers a great summary of your maternity leave rights, including when it can start and how long it lasts.
- Gov.uk offers a useful maternity planner to help you plan your leave days and calculate your pay.
- At this point it’s worth considering shared parental leave, a new entitlement to split your maternity leave with your partner. The Worksmart website offers a useful guide to shared parental leave and other family-friendly working issues.
- If you are keen to return to work after your baby, please (Please!!) use your Keeping in Touch Days. These are 10 days when you can go to work to keep up to speed with what’s going on, without ending your maternity leave. You are entitled to receive full pay for these days! More importantly, I think these days can help you maintain your confidence about working and help your employer realise you are serious about returning. I didn’t use them with my first baby, and I regret it. I used a few during my second maternity leave, and they made me so happy. I brought baby with me and breastfed him during meetings. His burps really made a strong contribution to the proceedings.
Returning to work and requesting flexible and/or part-time working
If you’ve sailed through being pregnant at work and maternity leave, this is the stage that might just trip you up. It’s where me and many of my friends have gotten a few metaphorical scraped knees and bruises. Knowing your rights is half the battle.
- I know people who’ve been made redundant upon trying to return after maternity leave. Scrutinise this. If there is a programme of general redundancies, that may be legitimate, but beware of being singled out. If you are, it’s probably illegal.
- Your employer is not allowed to deny you the right to express breastmilk at work or to adjust your working patterns to allow for breastfeeding. You cannot be expected to express breastmilk in the toilets.
- If you’ve been employed at your workplace for more than 26 weeks, you have a right to request flexible working. This could involve part-time hours, flexible hours or home-working.
- If you have a meeting with your employer to discuss your flexible working request, it is considered good practice to allow you to bring a union representative or work colleague along to the meeting to back you up. I encourage you to do this.
- They cannot turn your request down unless they have a sound business reason, such as extra expense or not being able to do it during non-standard hours. Please question them if they turn you down, and consider an appeal as explained in the link above. I know people who’ve asked to work 8am-4pm instead of 9-5, and been turned down, despite it not being a customer-facing role or time-sensitive in any way. This is bullshit. Fight it.
- If your request is accepted, it should not involve any drop in status or pay. Part-time and flexible workers are entitled to the same promotion prospects, incremental pay rises and other employment benefits as full-time workers. Acas has further advice about this and a free helpline for any employment rights questions.
Pregnancy, birth and motherhood can change you in so many ways, it’s super unfair that we still have to fight for our jobs when we’ve been through so much. Maternity can knock your confidence, and we deserve support and equal treatment.
If your employer has given you the shaft in circumstances related to your pregnancy and birth, fight it! Here is some info about taking action against discrimination at work. However, I totally understand that having a baby is hard enough and you might not be up for a legal battle. At the very least, check out Pregnant then Screwed for advice, and tell them your story anonymously to help their campaign.
Did your employer give you the shaft for having a baby? How did you deal with it?