On Wednesday, the Women and Equalities Select Committee published their recommendations for tackling pregnancy and maternity discrimination. It was a headline story in the media, and discussions and debates were broadcast throughout the day. I’m sure many people listening questioned why we needed to discuss this issue again. The problem is that far from improving, the situation has significantly deteriorated in the last 10 years. Despite this, the Government is yet to take any decisive action.
During the debates, this was pointed out to Maria Miller MP (Chair of the Committee) time and time again. Her response was that her party has implemented many policies to make things easier for working mothers including shared parental leave and the right to request flexible working. I agree that these policies are a step in the right direction, but simultaneously the Government has eroded workers’ rights through other policies including the introduction of Tribunal fees which makes it prohibitively expensive to access justice if you are a victim of discrimination.
Since our inception we have campaigned for an extension to the time limit to take a case of pregnancy discrimination to Tribunal from 3 months to (a minimum of) 6 months. Going through a Tribunal whilst pregnant can risk the health of a mother and her unborn child. It is cruel and unrealistic to ask a woman to make a choice between justice and the health of her baby. We have also campaigned for the abolition of Tribunal fees – who has £1200 when they have lost their job and they are either pregnant or on maternity leave? So we were pleased to see that these were both recommendations in the report.
Of course, these recommendations were put forward by the Equality and Human Rights Committee in April so they are nothing new. The Government’s response at the time was to deny that either Tribunal Fees or the time limit are an issue for victims of discrimination.
I am sad to say that we were disappointed with the rest of the report for two reasons: firstly we don’t believe the recommendations went far enough, and secondly, because yet again we are trying to put the onus back on the employer. We must remember that 40% of managers have admitted they do not want to hire women of childbearing age in case they have a baby on their watch and many women say they were severely bullied or harassed by their managers and colleagues when they announced their pregnancy as it was seen as a burden. If we make the legislation even more onerous do we therefore not run the risk of making discrimination, bullying and harassment worse rather than better?
We are very supportive of the recommendation that we work to change the narrative on pregnancy and mothers in the workplace. We need some hard facts which demonstrate the cost benefit of looking after pregnant workers and those returning from maternity leave if we are to change the views of employers, but I think we need to also admit that managing pregnancy and maternity can sometimes be challenging for small businesses. Pregnancy and maternity discrimination is a symptom of this friction – companies exist to generate a profit; to an employer a pregnant woman represents a potential threat to that. The EHRC report showed that employers who had dealt with pregnancy and maternity on their team previously, responded much more favourably about how this would impact their business than those who had not. However, recruiting someone to fill a temporary role can be expensive and time consuming and both pregnancy and maternity do bring a level of uncertainty for an employer in terms of when that member of staff will be willing and able to work. To ease this challenge we need the Government to be implementing policies that help small businesses, rather than chucking a load more legislation at them to make that challenging experience even more challenging.
The recommendations also attempt to deal with pregnancy and maternity discrimination as an isolated issue, they don’t tackle the root cause, which we believe is a completely outdated labour market infrastructure that just isn’t fit for purpose anymore. It perpetuates gender inequality which we believe is a major contributor to the low productivity we are seeing in the UK.
If we look at countries where productivity is much higher, such as Sweden, they have implemented some fantastic policies which have changed the labour market to enable both mothers and fathers to have a career.
In Sweden they are currently experimenting with a 6 hour working day, they have enhanced and incentivised paternity leave where fathers have a daddy quota of 90 days leave paid at 80% of their salary, and they have subsidised and means tested child care. In the highly productive Silicon Valley, many of the companies offer flexible working as standard and encourage their staff to work a 4 day week; many have recently started offering fully paid paternity and maternity leave for a year and have onsite free childcare for returning parents. These ‘benefits’ are not offered because of a sense of ethics or responsibility, they coldly and simply make the companies more profitable and more competitive.
These are the sorts of legislative changes that will really start creating a culture shift that reduces discrimination, makes families stronger and increases productivity for business whilst making women an integral part of our economy.
Here are the headline recommendations from the Committee:
Strategy and leadership
1.The Government should publish a strong, specific communications plan for the awareness-raising and attitude-changing work it has agreed to undertake in response to the EHRC’s recommendations. The plan should include clear timelines and should set out where accountability for implementation will lie.
Changes in laws and protections
2.Employers should be required to undertake an individual risk assessment when they are informed that a woman who works for them is pregnant, has given birth in the past six months or is breastfeeding.
3.The right to paid time off for antenatal appointments should be extended to workers. The Government should review the pregnancy and maternity-related rights available to workers and legislate to give greater parity between workers and employees.
4.The Government should increase protection from redundancy so that new and expectant mothers can be made redundant only in specified circumstances. (Paragraph 70)
Access to justice
5.The Government should review the three-month time limit for bringing a tribunal claim in maternity and pregnancy discrimination cases and should substantially reduce tribunal fees.
6.The Government should monitor access to free, good-quality, one-to-one advice on pregnancy and maternity discrimination issues and assess whether additional resources are required.