A shocking 77% of women experience unfavourable treatment at work during pregnancy or maternity leave, yet very few end up confronting their employers. Pregnancy discrimination is multifaceted, often insidious, and can have far-reaching consequences on a woman’s career development and mental health.
Dr Meenal Viz was in her second trimester of pregnancy when the pandemic broke out. As guidelines regarding the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) for NHS frontline workers kept changing, she was told that a surgical mask and a plastic apron was all she needed on Covid wards.
While most employees feared for their career prospects during the crisis, Dr Viz put her life and that of her unborn child on the line. “The fear that I had resonated with every other pregnant woman across the country and across the world,” she told the BBC.
According to a survey of 2,150 pregnant workers, 8% worked in environments they deemed unsafe during the crisis, even though they are considered a vulnerable group. Meanwhile a Trades Union Congress (TUC) survey of more than 3,400 women found that one in four expectant or new mums experienced unfair treatment or discrimination at work, such as being singled out for furlough or redundancy.
The coronavirus crisis serves to highlight the persistent discrimination against pregnant workers. Hundreds of women who could not work from home were suspended on incorrect terms. Many were forced to take sick leave, unpaid leave or start their maternity leave early.
“My employer first told me to use my annual leave until ‘they work it out’, then asked me if I could get a sick note saying that I was too anxious to come to work,” said Jessica Cullen*, a medical secretary in a respiratory department at a hospital with Covid-19 patients.
Cullen found out that she was pregnant just before lockdown, following months of IVF treatment. She refused to go on sick leave and instead pressed her employer to allow her to work from home. Her request was eventually granted, but she has since felt little to no support from her management and colleagues. “It feels like they massively begrudge my pregnancy,” she said, citing multiple accounts of negative comments regarding her performance since she has been shielding at home.
“I don’t know if it’s discrimination or if I’m just expecting too much from my employer,” she said, adding that “attitudes toward pregnant women at work needs to change”.
What is pregnancy discrimination?
Research shows that discrimination against pregnant women remains widespread in the workplace, despite the Equality Act (2010) clearly prohibiting any unfavourable treatment relating to pregnancy, maternity or a pregnancy-related sickness. A 2016 study by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) suggested that as many as 54,000 mothers a year are either dismissed, made redundant where others in their workplace were not, or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave.
Pregnancy discrimination is difficult to define, explains Lara Kennedy, a solicitor who specialises in employment law at Leigh Day. “Unlike other forms of discrimination, there are so many areas throughout the timeline of pregnancy where women can face different types and levels of discrimination,” she said.
Some forms of discrimination are blatant, such as getting sacked after announcing your pregnancy to an employer. Often, unfavourable treatment is more subtle: pregnant workers might be sidelined or singled out for redundancy upon return from maternity leave. A stream of degrading comments regarding work performance, remarks about body changes or inappropriate stomach touching can also amount to harassment.
“It can also be while women are on maternity leave, or just before, that an employer might fail to communicate with pregnant workers about promotions, redundancies or internal vacancies, which, obviously, has a huge impact on their ability to progress in that workplace,” said Kennedy.
Laura Wilson*, a lawyer with Police Scotland, has an ongoing grievance with her employer for multiple incidents of discrimination during her high-risk pregnancy last year, such as obstructive behaviour with regards to attending extra medical appointments.
The unfavourable treatment continued into her maternity leave, which she was obliged to start earlier than planned. Two weeks after her daughter was born, her employer contacted her to inquire why she hadn’t finished all of her handover notes, adding that this would be kept on her personal record.
“I realised they were building a case against me and were trying to make it look like I’m not good at my job,” she said. “I feel like a liability for the department because I’m a single mother and have children to look after. Am I going to be looked at less favourably for promotion? Probably.”
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What are the consequences?
The impact of pregnancy discrimination can be long-lasting, with far-reaching effects. “Pregnancy discrimination has a massive cost impact on the economy as a whole, because women either give up their jobs or they come back part-time. That’s their whole career development completely changed,” said Kennedy.
The impact of a woman’s decision to have children on her potential salary is also known as the motherhood pay penalty. Women who become mothers before the age of 33 earn 15% less than similar women who haven’t had children, according to a TUC analysis of full-time workers.
A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in July 2020 has revealed a worrying connection between pregnancy discrimination and the health of mothers and babies. The study, led by Balyor University in the US, revealed that perceived pregnancy discrimination indirectly relates to an increased likelihood of postnatal depression. It can also affect babies in the womb: lower birth weights and lower gestational ages (babies born before their due date) are more likely for babies whose mothers experienced discrimination while they are in the womb.
Joeli Brearly, who campaigns for pregnant workers’ rights, believes that her unfair dismissal at four months pregnant largely contributed to her postnatal depression. Brearly had been working for four months of a one-year, fixed-term contract when she announced her pregnancy to her employer. She was sacked by voicemail the next day.
“It ate away at me. I thought about it every single day, the anger of that happening and the fact I couldn’t do anything about it,” she said. “I think that I also had a high-risk pregnancy because of the stress and shock of being sacked so viciously.”
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A long road to justice
Less than 1% of expectant and new mums who are discriminated against in the workplace take legal action against their employer. One of the biggest hurdles is the time limit—which stands at three months less one day—for lodging a discrimination claim with the employment tribunal. “It takes about that time, or much longer than that, to turn that hurt into anger and to think to yourself, ‘Yes, I’m going to do something about it’,” said Brearly.
For Jane Harman, timing played a crucial role in failing to access justice. She was sacked from her job working in a retail warehouse six weeks after announcing her pregnancy. Her manager then started gaslighting her. He accused her of cashing mistakes and of forgetting to label articles on shelves, which she was certain she hadn’t overlooked. “I, and everyone else who works in that warehouse, believe to this day that I was set up,” she said, some three years later.
To support her case, she drew up a 14-page account of different incidents, which she handed over to her union. However, four days before the tribunal deadline, the union said they wouldn’t represent her. “After that, I called solicitors, but nobody was available to see me that week, so I was forced to drop the claim,” she said.
She has been unemployed ever since. “I never know what to say during job interviews. Do I say that I was sacked because I was pregnant, or should I just say that they let me go? It makes me look bad, like I can’t do my job.”
Leading the fight
In 2015, Brearly launched Pregnant Then Screwed (PTS) to offer advice and support to pregnant women. More than 2,000 women have shared their stories on the platform’s blog, helping others to make sense of what they might be experiencing in the workplace while raising public awareness.
“The law is really complicated and it’s not easy to identify whether certain behaviour is discrimination—but women will always have a tendency to think that it’s their fault or that they are a burden,” said Brearly.
Brearly thinks it is vital that pregnant women document everything. “Try to have evidence in writing or recorded voice material,” she said. “Take people with you to meetings if you’re really concerned about what your superiors might say or are going to do.”
PTS is also backing the Pregnancy and Maternity (Redundancy Protection) Bill. The new legislation would extend the redundancy protection period for six months once a new mother returns to work.
“We try to talk about this issue with as wide an audience as possible,” said Brearly. “We try to make very clear that this isn’t just good for women, it’s good for families and for the economy—without mothers working, the economy would collapse.”
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