The Women and Equalities Committee (“WEC”) has recently published a report on pregnancy and maternity discrimination, which shows that the number of expectant and new mothers pushed out of their jobs following pregnancy or maternity leave has almost doubled since 2005.

The WEC report follows on from a report by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (“EHRC”) in March 2016, which revealed that although 84% of employers feel it is in their best interests to support pregnant women and new mothers at work, 77% of women reported negative experiences at work related to their pregnancy or maternity. The EHRC report highlighted that:

  • 44% of mothers had experienced a failure by their employers to address health and safety risks at work during their pregnancy;
  • 20% had suffered financial loss (such as loss of pay, bonus or promotion) as a result of pregnancy or maternity leave; and
  • 11% felt forced out of their jobs (whether by compulsory redundancy, poor treatment or other dismissal) on their return to work.

Those who were at greatest risk of ill-treatment were those employed in the caring and leisure services and those on agency, casual or zero hours contracts.

Under the Equality Act 2010, female employees are protected from less favourable treatment by their employer because of pregnancy, pregnancy-related sickness or maternity leave. Less favourable (and therefore discriminatory) treatment can include dismissal, redundancy, removal of responsibilities, denial of a bonus and being overlooked for promotion. Protection from such discrimination extends from the start of a woman’s pregnancy to the end of her maternity leave.

Despite these protections, and as highlighted by the WEC report, in practice many women still face maternity discrimination in the workplace. This may, in part, be the result of a growing trend towards more temporary, casual or flexible working practices, which in turn can (rightly or wrongly) lead to workers having fewer rights and protections than their employee counter-parts. It may also be the result of a lack of easily accessible information and guidance (for both employees and employers) in relation to the protections and rights afforded to female employees during pregnancy and maternity leave, which can in turn lead to a lack of awareness and failure to follow good practice. Alternatively, it could simply be the result of outdated views and approaches towards pregnant employees, and could signal the need for a change in attitudes towards working mothers.

Whatever the root-cause of this increase in discrimination, one contributing factor may well have been the introduction of employment tribunal fees, in 2013, of £1,200. The introduction of these fees has most likely contributed to the decline in the number of women taking their employer to tribunal for pregnancy or maternity related discrimination, and an ensuing view amongst some employers that they can get away with treating such employees unfairly. MPs are therefore demanding government action to tackle the rise of maternity discrimination in the workplace.

The WEC report consequently recommends a number of proposals aimed at tackling the rise of maternity discrimination, including:

  • improved health and safety assessments for pregnant employees;
  • substantial reduction in the fee for women taking pregnancy-related discrimination cases to an employment tribunal;
  • increasing the three month time limit for bringing maternity and pregnancy related claims to the employment tribunal to six months;
  • protection from redundancy until six months after the return to work;
  • extending maternity-related rights to casual, agency and zero hours workers;
  • improving access to information and encouraging a change in attitudes; and
  • assurances that rights and protections will not be eroded following the vote to leave the European Union.

It remains to be seen how many, if any, of these recommendations will be adopted by the government, who have said that they will respond to the WEC report in due course. It is likely, however, that this is an area in which a strengthening of the legal position of pregnant women and new mothers can be expected.

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Thérèse Rankin


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Posted on 07/10/2016 in Legal Updates

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