A new bill was reintroduced in parliament this week that aims to give pregnant women and new mothers added legal protections against redundancy.
This is against a backdrop of dismay from campaigners over the numbers of women who are pregnant or on maternity leave being lost to the workforce during the Covid-19 crisis.
Maria Miller MP’s Pregnancy and Maternity Redundancy Protection Bill was put to the House of Commons as a private member’s bill and has attracted cross-party backing.
Miller’s proposals aim to give women protection from redundancy when pregnant, in the six months following their child’s birth and during maternity leave.
She said: “Every year, 53,000 women leave their jobs when pregnant because of how they’ve been treated. My bill strengthens existing laws to better protect pregnant women and new mothers by prohibiting employers from making them redundant.”
Miller also explained, in an article for the Telegraph, the pandemic had shown that “too many employers [failed] to provide the basic protection pregnant women and new mums are entitled to by law”. Covid-19 meant that the protections for workers needed to have “real teeth”, she said.
“We need all employees to be treated fairly, on their merit, not discriminated against simply because they are pregnant or new mums,” she wrote.
Women are overrepresented in sectors particularly hard hit by hospitality, leisure, tourism and the arts – which, say campaigners, makes it even easier to single out pregnant women as targets for redundancy. A study by PwC published in May found 78% of those who had already lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic were women.
Among groups supporting the bill was Maternity Action, which said hundreds of women had contacted the charity’s advice line about threats to their jobs. Its director, Rosalind Bragg, said: “The current law on redundancy and maternity is complex, poorly understood and difficult to enforce. It is desperately unfair that mothers are bearing the brunt of the economic downturn, having to battle unfair redundancies as well as taking on an increased share of domestic work.”
Bragg said it was common for women to find that the individual covering their maternity leave was being kept on while their role was made redundant, “a classic case of unfair and unlawful redundancy” and that it was impossible for women in this situation to devote energy and finances to pursuing employment tribunal claims. She added that employers wrongly perceived pregnant women to be more expensive than other employees – with many employers appearing oblivious to the fact the government pays for statutory maternity pay.
Campaigners fear that as furlough winds down over the next few months women will be disproportionately targeted for redundancy.
Pregnant then Screwed founder Joeli Brearley, reinforced campaigners’ view that unless there was enhanced protection, pregnant women and those returning from maternity leave would be “collateral damage” as the UK entered recession. She said: “Pregnant women are viewed as distracted and that they can’t be committed to their job if they are about to take some time out of their career to care for a new baby. When women return from maternity leave, they are also extremely vulnerable as the business has been operating without them for the last nine months so they’re not at the forefront of an employer’s mind.”
Brearley proposed that businesses could support mothers by setting quotas for women and BAME staff at all levels, and by introducing increased flexibility to enable staff to juggle work and caring responsibilities.
The bill offers similar redundancy protections covering women in Germany but failed to complete its passage through parliament before the end of the session in 2019. Miller successfully reintroduced it this week as a 10-minute rule bill, a type of private members’ bill, but now must wait until 16 October for a second reading. This type of bill allows a backbench MP to make his or her case for a new bill in a speech lasting up to 10 minutes.
Among groups supporting Miller is the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Fawcett Society, Pregnant Then Screwed, Working Families, the Royal College of Midwives, Unison and Usdaw.
A 2019 study by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy found that one in nine women have been fired or made redundant, or were treated so badly they felt forced out of their job, after going back to work from maternity leave. The report estimated that about 54,000 women each year may lose their role at work because of pregnancy or maternity.
Case study: Culture Shift
Gemma McCall, CEO and co-founder of Culture Shift, was inspired to set up the software development business, as a result of her experiences.
“I faced discrimination at work during both my pregnancies, which was my number one motivation for setting up Culture Shift. When it happened to me, I felt isolated and my confidence returning to the workplace was low after being on parental leave for a year. Because I assumed it was me and not them, I didn’t do anything about the discrimination because I also found pursuing any case was completely cost-prohibitive. I later learned that this is how most women feel when they are experiencing discrimination and many employers bank on this when making women redundant. The discrimination that pregnant women face is prolific and Culture Shift [which supports organisations in tackling workplace bullying and harassment] is my way of taking my experience and turning it into something useful and positive. I want every single person facing harassment of any form in the workplace to feel empowered to speak out without facing stigma.
“MP Maria Miller’s bill offers welcomed protection of pregnant women and new mothers at a time that’s more challenging than ever to find a job. According to research commissioned by London School of Economics, women are more likely than men to lose their jobs in the looming recession. This disparity is compounded by the fact that there have been countless cases of women being made redundant or discriminated against while pregnant or upon returning from maternity leave. It is abundantly clear more action needs to be taken to better protect pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace.
“80% of the people working at Culture Shift work flexibly, not only because of parental responsibilities but also down to the desire for people to have a better work/life balance. Flexible working enables all employees – whether they’re male or female – to better juggle their work-life balance. Losing women out of the workforce is harmful to business for many reasons. Employers should be looking to offer better options for shared parental leave, as well as having a system in place in which employees can report any instances of discrimination or harassment. These are low-cost measures employers can implement to create a fair and inclusive culture. It’s our mission to help companies create diverse, inclusive cultures and to ensure every single employee feels safe, supported and has access to the same opportunities in the workplace – no matter what their gender, ethnicity, ability, religion or sexual orientation is.”