Child’s play: managing maternity discrimination

maternity-discrimination
Being flexible about time off for antenatal care will help employees feel comfortable about requests.

Research issued last month by the Equality and Human Rights Commission showed that 54,000 new mothers are forced out of their jobs each year. Janvi Patel suggests some practical ways managers can avoid maternity discrimination and retain female talent. 

Figures published in a report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) last month show in detail just how many women face discrimination in the workplace due to pregnancy.

Some of the headline figures were shocking, but it was encouraging to read that 84% of employers believed “it was in the interests of their business to support pregnant women and those on maternity leave” and that “it was important to provide support because it increased staff retention”.

Even from the employee’s view, four in five mothers said their needs were supported “willingly” while they were pregnant, and three in four of those returning to work said their needs as a new mother were supported.

While we need to do more and continue to support women and working families, we also need to think about how we address potential maternity discrimination on a managerial level.

Managers should think of pregnancy and maternity leave as one of the easiest management issues. For example, how many periods of absence do you have time to manage and effectively recruit for?

Pregnancy/maternity leave is not an obstacle, it is just a case of effectively managing logistics with planning.

If the leadership approach maternity time off in such a way, it will go towards creating a more loyal, stable and productive workforce. Here are some possible ways to achieve this.

Time off for antenatal care

According to the EHRC’s report, 10% of respondents felt discouraged from asking for time off for antenatal appointments.

Many pregnant employees are asked by their employers to schedule their antenatal appointments ahead of time and towards the beginning or the end of the day, but the reality is that most are just told when the midwife is available and given a time to attend.

It is not easy to manage the time and usually the clinics are near the individual’s home. Often, the answer is to permit the employee to work from home that day, so they can fit the appointment around work.

However, overall, it is important to have a clear lines of communication to ensure that managers/employees can plan as much as possible to ensure minimum disruption to the business.

Treatment pre/during/after maternity leave

As many as 100,000 new mothers a year experienced harassment or negative comments from colleagues, employers or managers when pregnant or returning from leave, the EHRC found.

Any form of harassment or negative comments should be formally or informally addressed. Managers should also consider that leadership sets the tone in a business, and lead by example.

The way a company deals with logistics of pregnancy, maternity leave and return to work should be starting point.

If maternity leave is thought of as a “pain” then this will flow through the tone of the company and will encourage negative behaviour.

Managers should ensure they are working as a team with employees to address any periods of absence, even giving them ownership of the interim recruitment process.

Return to work

The report highlighted how one woman in 10 said that they were treated worse by their employer after returning to work after having a baby.

Returning to work post maternity leave is a hard transition for most working mothers.  In some cases, it is starting a new job again, but with added family pressures and tighter time constraints.

If budgets permit, I would suggest three action points to assist with the transition:

  • Permit the individual to take any accrued holiday days during the first few months back, maybe 1 or 2 days/week. This may mean shorter weeks for the first few weeks, but is helpful in ensuring the returning mother gets back up to speed at a manageable pace.
  • Ensure there is a handover period from the interim cover. This usually takes a few weeks as well.
  • Finally, consider offering maternity coaching with external coaches who work with prospective mothers and new mothers before, during and after maternity to coach them through each transitional phase and make sure they are getting the support they need from the business.

Overall, getting back into work post maternity leave usually takes a month or two and managing expectations on this all round will be helpful for all parties concerned.

Pressure to leave

Sadly, a few women who responded to the EHRC survey said they felt under pressure to hand in their notice. Employees should never be pressured to “hand in their notice”, under any circumstances.

If the working arrangement is not working, hours need to be changed, days working from home need to be changed, or if the individual’s performance is not at the acceptable standard, the manager needs to deal with such situations via the appropriate procedure.

In addition, I would recommend that any change in working arrangements should be reviewed regularly, maybe every three months for the first nine months back at work, with the right to make adjustments if the arrangement is not working.

Effect on remuneration and opportunities

One in 20 mothers reported receiving a cut in pay or bonus after returning to their job, and even when mothers were given the chance to work flexibly on their return to work, around half said it cut their work opportunities and they felt their opinion was less valued.

This is something I come across quite often when interviewing senior lawyers; how opportunities were affected after maternity leave or due to a change in working arrangements.

Remember the phrase “If you want something done ask a busy person”? That is a working parent. More hours does not mean more efficiency or better value, it just means the individual had the time.

Value your employees, male/female, with or without children, based on the value of their work and not by how many hours they spend at their desk.

In the face of this report, let’s not forget the positives. We have made significant progress since the late 1990s when many of the pregnancy and maternity leave and policies came into force and we are still evolving, for example, shared parental leave.

However, on the behavioural level we still a need to train leaders not to see maternity leave as a business challenge that impacts negatively on the business.

More often than not it can be an opportunity to give someone internal a development opportunity or even bring in some new skills. Overall, the right approach to managing maternity creates retention and a loyal, motivated workforce.

Janvi Patel

About Janvi Patel

Janvi Patel is chairwoman and co-founder of legal consultancy Halebury.
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