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New mothers' rights in the workplace – everything you need to know

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On Mother’s Day it is important to not only celebrate all the hard work and care that mothers do, but also to draw attention to the many hurdles they still face in today’s society, and how they can be overcome.

Among these challenges is pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace, with pregnant women and new mothers often being side-lined and treated differently to their peers.


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Sadly, maternity discrimination is on the rise from where it was 10 years ago, and unfortunately the pandemic has made it increasingly difficult for mothers to manage work and childcare.

It is now essential that both new and expecting mothers and their employers are aware of their rights and statutory obligations to ensure a fairer and more just society for all.

The Equality Act 2010 protects employees from discrimination and victimisation because of their pregnancy, or for taking/seeking to take maternity leave. For instance:

  • Women have no legal obligation to tell a potential employer that they are pregnant, and employers cannot refuse to hire a woman because she is pregnant

  • Pregnant women benefit from paid time off to attend antenatal care recommended by a medical professional, and they cannot be dismissed because they exercise this right or be made to compensate for the hours at a later date

  • Employers must not consider pregnancy-related illness when considering other sickness absence or in deciding about new mothers’ employment

  • Breastfeeding women are also protected, making it unlawful for businesses to discriminate on these grounds

UK statutory maternity leave entitles mothers to 52 weeks away from work, made up of ordinary maternity leave (the first 26 weeks) and additional maternity leave (the last 26 weeks).

Throughout their maternity leave, women also continue to accrue paid holiday, as if they were at work, and employers have to allow new mothers to carry over more annual leave than normal in order to ensure that they don’t lose any of their paid time off.

New mothers can also receive statutory maternity pay, which is paid for up to 39 weeks and comprises 90% of their average weekly earnings (before tax) for the first six weeks and then £151.97 or 90% of their average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) for the next 33 weeks.

Mothers who do not qualify for statutory maternity pay may benefit from maternity allowance if they are self-employed and pay Class 2 National Insurance.

In terms of career progression employers have to make sure that job vacancies and opportunities are shared with all relevant employees, without excluding those who are pregnant or on maternity leave.

When employers fail to do this, and an expecting or new mother believes they have been turned down for a job or overlooked for a promotion because they are pregnant or on maternity leave, they can complain to their employer by raising a formal grievance or pursue an employment tribunal claim.

Where redundancy is concerned, the general rule is that if an employee’s position is at risk of redundancy during her period of maternity leave, she is entitled to be offered a suitable alternative vacancy where one is available.

Under regulation 10 of the Maternity and Parental Leave Regulations 1999, a woman on maternity leave should be offered any suitable alternative roles before other employees without having to attend interviews or take part in a selection process.

As expected, the pandemic aggravated an already concerning situation, as lockdown measures presented parents with many challenges surrounding their working patterns and how to handle childcare responsibilities.

The unequal impact of the pandemic on pregnant women and mothers was confirmed by surveys conducted by Pregnant then Screwed in July 2020, which found high levels of anxiety among pregnant women and mothers about redundancy.

This prompted the Equality and Human Rights Commission to highlight pregnancy and maternity discrimination as one of the “most urgent, immediate threats to equality” during the pandemic.

While the law can be modified to increase protection of expecting and new mothers, unconscious biases and negative stereotypes are more ingrained and harder to change. This is a particular challenge in the workplace with regards to recruitment, development and promotion.

In its extreme form, bias can manifest as discrimination, harassment or even exclusion. We must now ask ourselves: are working mothers repeatedly forced to prove their worth? Are men valued just based on their potential and are women, especially mothers, judged on their performance?

Working mothers who juggle increased childcare demands are all too often experiencing workplace biases, and this continues to remain a significant barrier to women’s career advancements.

While it is important for new and expecting mothers to know their legal rights, it is even more vital for employers to critically reflect upon the role of mothers in the workplace and their contribution to ask themselves whether workplaces are doing enough to be more inclusive and supportive of mothers.

 

Neha Thethi is head of employment at Lime Solicitors