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Protection against pregnancy discrimination is a human right, not a luxury

Pregnancy should be one of the most joyful times in a woman’s life, but sadly it can be a period of great anxiety due to discrimination in the workplace, and sometimes even job loss. 

Manifestations of this kind of discriminatory conduct in the workplace are highly diverse and varied. Employees can experience detrimental changes to the terms and conditions of their employment including reductions to salaries and working hours or having promotion offers retracted. 

On the other side, we also see employers refusing to comply with medical advice to accommodate a pregnancy which enables women to keep working.

This can include implementing disciplinary action following pregnancy-related illness and medical appointments, expecting women to continue carrying out duties or work in environments that can be unsafe for pregnant workers. 

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Women have long been protected against pregnancy discrimination by the Equality Act, yet supporting women during parental leave and when they return to the workforce is an ongoing issue across the UK.

A recent study found that one in four (26%) expectant mothers feel reluctant to share their pregnancy news due to fear of the stigma they may face from colleagues and managers and one in eight (12%) have experienced acts of discrimination themselves. 

Of course, there are legal steps that can be taken but many women choose to ‘work around’ the situation rather than do anything formally about it. Unfortunately, this means that women’s experiences of pregnancy discrimination remain largely invisible, and more research is needed to evaluate if the existing legal avenues are adequate for addressing pregnancy discrimination. 

Employment tribunal claims for a female worker who has suffered detriment or unfair dismissal because of their pregnancy have a success rate of 43.73%. Not to mention the psychological pressures of being involved in a lengthy litigation with the average tribunal waiting time in the UK being just under 12 months. 

Pursuing legal action also comes at a risk of job loss and access to maternity pay. As a result, most new parents might not want to spend time pursuing a claim out of concern for their financial stability during the cost of living crisis and would rather prioritise preparing for the arrival of their new baby. 

Employers need to understand their legal obligations in relation to female workers when they are pregnant and when they want to return to work following the birth of a child.

Discrimination law is full of complex definitions and procedures which can be overwhelming for those who are not familiar with it, so it is equally important that women have access to legal advice during this time.

Having this necessary advice and information means that both parties might be able to resolve allegations of discrimination before the employment relationship completely breaks down.

However, protection against pregnancy discrimination is a human right, not a luxury. Management and HR professionals should aim to do more than just what is required of them if they want to see success when it comes to attracting and retaining staff. To maintain women’s participation in the workforce, we need to ensure that appropriate supports and structures are in place.

During pregnancy, managers can consult with their female colleagues about what is needed to effectively support their pregnancy to enable them to continue working.

It is important to keep this dialogue open and create an environment where employees feel as if they can speak freely about their requirements should their needs change over time. 

Directing them to support systems around the company as well as actively encouraging them (rather than just reminding them) to use relevant health and wellbeing benefits is crucial.

Other family-friendly policies such as equal parental leave for all employees, regardless of gender, can also help alleviate pressures workers may be facing.

Initiatives like this signal to employees that this is a company committed to creating a diverse workforce where they can flexibly develop without fear of compromising their careers or personal lives.

Not only does this make good sense, but it also makes good business sense as these policies encourage workers to return after maternity and paternity leave, saving time and expense in recruiting and training fresh staff. 

Overall, we have come a long way. There are more working women with children than ever before, which could be attributed to initiatives such as better flexible working policies following Covid-19. However, there’s still much more that employers could do to address the more hidden systemic forms of discrimination that make women feel excluded from the workforce.  


Dominique Allen is the director of the labour, equality and human rights research group at Monash Business School