Counting the cost of pregnancy discrimination
This week, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) released figures on the financial cost of pregnancy discrimination. For women who lose their jobs, the cost is between £47 million and £113 million, just in the first year. Losses flowing from long term impacts on their career have not been calculated.
This research follows on from the EHRC’s comprehensive survey of pregnancy and maternity related discrimination, released in March of this year. Drawing on interviews with over 3,000 women and 3,000 employers, the researchers found that 77% of pregnant women and new mothers experience discrimination or negative treatment at work, 11% lose their job through discrimination and another 20% reported harassment or negative comments.
These figures should mean that pregnancy and maternity discrimination are a target for Government action. Theresa May flagged the injustice of women earning less than men in her first speech as Prime Minister. Business Minister, Margot James, stated that tackling pregnancy and maternity discrimination is a key priority for her and for the Government.
But what, aside from making grand statements, has Government done to address pregnancy discrimination? At this point in time, they have done very little. The EHRC made a fairly flimsy set of recommendations for action and the Government has accepted them in part only. The Government’s has yet to respond to the Women and Equalities Committee’s report on pregnancy discrimination. Maternity Action’s requests for a meeting with Business Minister, Margot James, have been knocked back. The EHRC’s Working Forward initiative, welcome as it is, is presented as a key Government intervention when it is, by its nature, a modest contribution to achieving change.
It is worth contrasting this response to that of the Scottish Government. In February of this year, even before release of the EHRC research, the Scottish Government announced a series of measures to reduce pregnancy discrimination. Their taskforce is to be chaired by Employability Minister, Jamie Hepburn, and will bring together employers, unions and other groups working in this area. While their powers are limited under devolution, the Scottish Government has already committed to getting rid of employment tribunal fees and is exploring other areas of work.
We need a systemic response to pregnancy discrimination if any inroads are to be made on the disturbingly large numbers of women facing unfair and unlawful treatment at work each year. Leaving it to individual women to resolve disputes with individual employers hasn’t halted the deterioration in women’s job security over the past ten years and is unlikely to prevent further decline in the future. The introduction of employment tribunal fees, cuts to advice service funding and to legal aid make it even more difficult for women to hold their employers to account.
Maternity Action, working with unions, parenting groups and advice agencies under the banner of the Alliance for Maternity Rights, has developed an Action Plan to put an end to pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. We have developed a series of recommendations covering health and safety, access to advice and information, strategies to improve employer practice, access to justice and the leadership role of Government.
The Action Plan addresses agencies across Government. We are calling for the needs of pregnant women and new mothers to given greater profile within the work of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The HSE should police the requirement that general risk assessments include risks to new and expectant mothers if women of childbearing age are employed. We are also seeking guidance requiring specific (individual) risk assessments to ensure that employers actually speak to women about their individual circumstances.
We are calling for employers to evaluate retention rates for women who have become pregnant, an initiative proposed in the TUC’s Motherhood Pay Penalty research. In time, this could be integrated into the Gender Pay Gap reporting, giving a level of public accountability to larger employers.
Obtaining advice and information about their rights remains a major challenge for women. With only one in four (28%) of women who experience discrimination raising it with their employer, we need to do more to raise women’s awareness of their rights and to give women access to specialist advice services.
The Justice Committee, in its inquiry into tribunal fees, singled out women experiencing pregnancy and maternity discrimination as requiring special consideration. We agree with their recommendation to extend the time limit for taking action and also call for tribunal fees to be abolished.
The Government’s manifest reluctance to take action to address pregnancy discrimination means active campaigning is needed. We would welcome involvement from the wider union movement.