It is deeply concerning that, 30 years after the introduction of legislation seeking to protect workers from sex discrimination, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) describes the findings of its current investigation into workplace pregnancy-related discrimination as “far worse than even we expected”.
The EOC has almost completed its biggest ever investigation and last week published its final interim report, Greater Expectations. It highlights numerous problems experienced by both employees and employers when dealing with pregnancy in the workplace and concludes that more must be done to help women and employers in making the current system work.
The report warns that if current trends continue, in the next five years more than one million women will experience workplace discrimination directly as a consequence of becoming pregnant.
Another alarming statistic is that 30,000 women are forced out of their jobs every year simply because they are pregnant. On top of this women, on average, return from maternity leave on a salary 5% lower than before.
However, women aren’t taking action. Most remain silent feeling too vulnerable to raise the issue with their employers and just 3% of those who actually lose their jobs bring claims in the Employment Tribunal.
It is not just because of the stress involved in pursuing such matters; employees simply don’t know what their rights are and the information isn’t always easily available.
This is unlikely to continue if the EOC has its way. It recommends that women receive written notification of their rights at their first ante-natal appointment; this coupled with awareness campaigns, will heighten awareness of these important personal rights.
It is imperative, therefore, for employers to get their houses in order or risk embarrassing litigation and unlimited compensation claims.
The EOC’s research finds that the main cause of such discrimination is unintentional and is a result of a lack of knowledge and understanding of current legislation.
It is accepted that this area of employment law is particularly complex and expert guidance together with specialist training, especially for line managers, is generally recommended when dealing with such sensitive and often highly contentious issues.
One particular problem is a lack of discussion between the employer and employee, perhaps with the employer being too worried to ask direct questions of a pregnant employee for fear of being criticised for pressurising staff.
This lack of discussion has the inevitable consequence of causing uncertainty when effective management and more openness could iron out a lot of the disruption caused. It makes sense for the current rules relating to the giving of, and asking for, information to be reviewed.
Recommendations made by the report include improving communication so that employers are given the green light to ask women to indicate return dates and intention to request a change to hours at an earlier stage.
One of the most worrying findings is the result of the EOC’s online survey in which 80% of HR professionals said that they would think twice before employing women of child-bearing age. Discrimination occurs, it appears, even before an employment relationship is formed.
These trends are extremely concerning for women, businesses and the economy in general and drastic and immediate action is necessary. Women make up more than half the workforce and are increasingly qualified and experienced; they have a lot to offer employers.
However, unfair treatment leads to resentment, stress and low morale and will inevitably lead to fewer women returning to their original work with the consequent problems of the UK economy suffering a further “brain drain” and UK plc lacking the diversity in its workforce that brings so many benefits.
It is crucial that the government takes the EOC’s findings seriously and acts upon them to ensure that future generations of women do not continue to suffer the same prejudices and discrimination that their mothers endured.