EHRC urges increased dialogue, as three in four working mothers report negative treatment at work

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is calling for urgent action on maternity discrimination, as a new report suggests three quarters of working mothers in the UK (classified in this case as expecting and new mothers) experience negative treatment at work.

Research carried out by the EHRC and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, found that 77 per cent of pregnant women and new mothers – the equivalent of 390,000 women – reported negative or discriminatory experiences at work.

But only 28 per cent of those went on to raise this issue with their employer, only three per cent went through their company’s internal grievance processes, and less than one per cent pursued a claim to an employment tribunal. Reasons given by the 3,000 women surveyed for not pursuing claims included the financial cost, stress, lack of information about their rights, and a fear of negative repercussions at work.

“We cannot ignore the scale of the hidden discrimination that working mothers face,” said Caroline Waters, deputy chair of the EHRC. “This is unacceptable in modern Britain, and urgent action is needed to ensure women are able to challenge discrimination and unfairness. This is why we are calling on the government to look at the barriers working pregnant women and mothers face in accessing justice.”

The study also found that 70 per cent of employers thought a women should declare at recruitment stage if they were pregnant, and a quarter thought it was reasonable to question women about their plans to have children during an interview. Three-in-four mothers who had been unsuccessful at job interviews conducted while pregnant – having disclosed the pregnancy to an employer – felt it had affected their chances of success.

“HR has a real role to play in educating interviewers: making sure they understand what is and is not an appropriate questions to ask, and ensuring interviews are not a barrier to women who are pregnant or have an existing family,” Waters said.

“Most employers we spoke to have fairly good HR policies around maternity leave and returning to work: the problem is the implementation gap between the policy and the experience of the worker. HR can lead the way in resolving that implementation gap, and can make a huge difference,” she added.

Dianah Worman, diversity adviser at the CIPD, said the report’s findings were “shocking, and should send alarm bells ringing across the business world. It shows many employers need to rethink how they recruit, retain and develop female talent. Besides the damage it causes to individuals, discrimination on this scale harms the UK economy which will only be able to reach its potential when it builds and sustains opportunities and choice for women to be as economically active as men.”  

The report highlights that four per cent of mothers - potentially 21,000 women - per year leave work because of unresolved health and safety risks. In Tuesday’s parliamentary debate on the subject, it was reported that women were not revealing pregnancy until health risks are posed to the babies, because they fear the professional repercussions.

The EHRC has published a series of proposals for change, calling on the government to explore the ease of access to employment tribunals for mothers, and to take more effective steps to prevent employers asking about a woman’s pregnancy, or her intention to have children during recruitment processes.