Experts ‘surprised’ by rise in pregnancy discrimination claims

Cases up 56 per cent in a year as employees feel empowered to call out wrongdoing and businesses struggle with cultural shift

The number of employment tribunal (ET) claims involving allegations of pregnancy discrimination has risen by more than half in a year, raising questions over whether employers are keeping up with a change in culture around maternity rights.

In 2017/18, the number of pregnancy-related ET claims reached 1,357 – an increase of 56 per cent on 2016/17, according to official figures.

This rate of growth was over twice as fast as the overall increase in the number of tribunal cases, which rose almost 20 per cent over the same period, from 143,950 in 2016/17 to 172,730 in 2017/18.

Claire McCartney, senior policy adviser at the CIPD, said that while the removal of tribunal fees may have accounted for some of the increase, there has also been a greater awareness of maternity and paternity rights, and an increased willingness to make claims.

She added that previous research from both the government and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the UK’s equalities watchdog, suggested there were still high levels of maternity discrimination in the UK. “Around a third of private sector employers have said it’s reasonable to ask women about their plans to have children in the future in the recruitment process, so we know that that has been happening for some time,” she said.

Proposed legislation to extend redundancy protection for new mothers to six months was welcome, McCartney added, but she called on the government to provide employers with more practical guidance.

“The legislation is really helpful, but it’s about creating culture change,” she said. “Prevention is better than cure, so it’s about organisations talking about the fact they’re not going to discriminate in this area, what their policies are, what their values are, making sure they are modelling these in general.” 

Sophie Vanhegan, partner at GQ Littler, which compiled the figures, said she was surprised to see a spike in pregnancy-related cases.

“I would generally say most sophisticated employers are very, very careful as to what they do when they’re dealing with pregnant employees in the first place,” she said. “There are obviously employers out there who have not been as rigorous in trying to ensure they deal with such employees lawfully in the past.”

Vanhegan attributed the increase in claims largely to the #MeToo movement, which had made women more aware of unacceptable behaviour, especially related to pregnancy. “Things that may have simply just been accepted in the past are now being seen as unacceptable and people are feeling more confident in being able to challenge them,” she said.

“We’ve certainly seen that companies are seeing these issues called out more often now, and they also feel they have got to be seen to be taking more steps to proactively fix any cultural issues they might have on their side.”

Vanhegan added there had been a “time lag” between the movement taking off and business culture changing. “We’re now two years since the #MeToo movement really exploded and I think that takes a little time to trickle down from the Hollywood-type arena in which it launched, into normal workplaces.”

Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, said the abolition of tribunal fees would have had a direct impact on the ability of women to bring pregnancy discrimination cases.

“Pregnant women and women on maternity leave do not have disposable cash as they are either surviving on their measly statutory maternity pay or saving for maternity leave,” she said.

She added increased media interest in the issue had further empowered women to take action, and urged businesses to do more.

“Businesses need to ensure their managers understand their legal obligations and the reasons why it is imperative women are supported by the business when they are pregnant, on maternity leave, or when they return to work. Otherwise, it could result in a very costly claim.”