Equality watchdog to probe maternity discrimination

The EOC’s investigation into the unfair treatment of pregnant women by
employers is proving there is still a lot of work to be done before equality is
ensured. Roisin Woolnough reports

Many employers are still treating pregnant women unfairly, with pregnancy-related
discrimination generating more calls to the Equal Opportunities Commission
(EOC) than any other subject.

Since launching the UK’s first ever investigation into pregnant women
suffering discrimination at work in September 2003, it has received 240 calls.
Of those calls, 45 per cent said they had been dismissed, threatened with
dismissal or redundancy or felt forced into resignation because of their
pregnancy.

More than 1,000 pregnancy-related unfair dismissal claims are lodged at
tribunals in England and Wales every year. Most are settled or withdrawn before
a full hearing.

The discrimination seems to be happening across all sectors, although the
investigation found that women aged under 25 in full-time employment, but with
less than one year’s service, are the group most likely to lodge a complaint.

The next stage of the investigation will focus on the employer’s
perspective. Julie Mellor, chair of the EOC, believes there needs to be more
sharing of best practice. "Clearly, some employers find it difficult to
manage pregnancy, particularly small employers," she said. "But many
others manage it successfully. Pregnant women who are treated fairly by their
employers are more likely to go back to work after having children."

One good example is HSBC. After introducing family-friendly policies, the
bank found that three times as many female staff returned to work after having
a baby. Fiona Cannon, head of equality and diversity at Lloyds TSB and chair of
the investigation advisory board, said her bank had similar results.

"We approach the whole work-life balance thing as one, with pregnancy
as part of that," she said. "As a result, our return rate after
maternity leave is 90 per cent, having been 72 per cent eight to 10 years
ago."

Cannon advised pregnant women and their managers to discuss arrangements as
soon as possible. "The earlier you have the conversation the better,
because it means you can plan," she explained. As soon as a woman
announces her pregnancy at Lloyds, they are issued with an information pack,
which includes advice on how to stay fit and healthy.

That positive attitude needs to be embedded in the corporate culture,
according to Cannon. "Culture is the biggest thing," she said.
"Women have babies, they continue their careers – it’s no big deal."

Surinda Sharma, director of diversity at Ford Europe, said it is vital that
women are treated well in an industry that has problems attracting enough women
in the first place. "We also want to be an employer of choice," he
said. Recouping the investment Ford has made in training and developing staff
is another strong consideration. "Our policy is geared towards keeping
them," he added.

However, the EOC research shows that many employers view pregnant women as
an expensive liability, and pregnancy as an ‘illness’. One employer who spoke
to the EOC during its investigation, said: "My company dreads an employee
becoming pregnant. Not only does the absence jeopardise the profitability of
the business as a whole, but the employment of other staff due to lost
business. Small employers should have the right to terminate pregnant women’s
employment."

The investigation is looking for employers, HR professionals and women with
a story to contact it with their experiences. "We want to hear about any concerns
from HR professionals. We’re looking for bad experiences and best
practice," said Cannon.

Most women who suffer problems are dismissed before going on maternity leave
– in some cases, within hours or days of informing their employer of their
pregnancy. There is a time limit of three months in the UK for making a claim
of pregnancy discrimination. This means many women have to lodge their
complaint either in the late stages of pregnancy, or soon after giving birth.

Cannon said the investigation needs to establish whether the legal framework
is sufficiently accessible. In France, for example, there is no time limit on
bringing a claim to tribunal if a woman feels she has been discriminated
against.

The UK offers women higher maternity leave entitlement than most other
European countries. However, the amount of maternity pay is among the lowest in
the EU. It also lags behind its European counterparts in terms of childcare
provision.

Mellor believes some employers worry that women will be less productive
after having a child. To overcome that fear, she said that childcare options
must improve. "We need to catch up with the rest of Europe on that,"
she said.

www.eoc.org.uk/pregnantandproductive

E-mail: managingpregnancy@eoc.org.uk

EOC’s pregnancy investigation

2004 June/July – The employers’ perspective. NOP survey of
employers to be released, highlighting the issues for employers
September – Interim report, with new research on pregnancy discrimination

2005 January – Release of survey of 700 women
February – Launch of final report

Source: Equal Opportunities Commission

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