Six in 10 businesses believe a women should disclose whether she is pregnant during her recruitment process, while almost half think women should work for an organisation for at least a year before deciding to have children, a study revealed today (19 February).
The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) survey of more than 1,000 small and medium-sized private sector employers, conducted by YouGov, has exposed the regressive attitudes of many businesses towards pregnancy and maternity in the workplace.
More than a third of private sector employers surveyed said it was reasonable to ask women about their future plans to have children during the recruitment process, while 41 per cent said pregnant employees put an ‘unnecessary cost burden’ on the workplace, findings that Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC chief executive, described as a “depressing reality”.
“When it comes to the rights of pregnant woman and new mothers in the workplace, we are still living in the dark ages,” Hilsenrath said.
“We should all know very well that it is against the law not to appoint a woman because she is pregnant or might become pregnant.
“Yet we also know that women routinely get asked questions about family planning in interviews. It’s clear that many employers need more support to better understand the basics of discrimination law and the rights of pregnant women and new mothers.”
The survey’s data was collected between 11 and 14 September 2017 and 27 November to 4 December 2017 from a total of 1,106 business decision-makers in the private sector.
Sarah Jackson, CEO of work-life balance charity Working Families, said discrimination around maternity and pregnancy provision in the workplace was a common grievance logged with the charity’s helpline.
"Sadly, these findings are far from surprising. We hear from women experiencing this type of discrimination every single day that our helpline is open,” she said.
“21st century employers recognise the value that supporting pregnant women and those returning from maternity leave brings in terms of loyal, productive and committed employees.
“A key barrier to progress on pregnancy and maternity discrimination is the shortage of jobs advertised with part-time or flexible hours. Making all jobs in the UK flexible as the norm rather than the exception, as the prime minister has suggested, would help stamp out the discrimination endemic in the recruitment process, which these findings highlight.”
The report’s findings indicated that some employers struggled to provide the necessary support for expectant and new mothers; 51 per cent reported some resentment towards pregnant women or those on maternity leave and more than a third reported difficulties in preventing discrimination. “SMEs in particular need more support,” Jackson added, to avoid making ‘false economies’ in how they deal with working women.
Naeema Choudry, employment partner at Eversheds Sutherland, highlighted the serious legal ramifications for businesses found to discriminate against working women.
“Asking a woman whether she is pregnant or has intentions of having children in the future during a recruitment process could amount to unlawful discrimination,” Choudry told People Management.
“If an individual then did not get the job, they could bring a claim to an employment tribunal and, if successful, could receive an award for injury to feelings.
“Should a tribunal find that the individual would have got the job if not for the discriminatory assumptions made, that person could be compensated for the financial losses of failing to get that job. She could also bring claims against the individuals asking the questions, resulting in individual liability as well as corporate liability.
“Ultimately, if these are not questions an employer would ask of a male candidate, why ask them of a female candidate?”
Research from the Gender Equality Index 2017 has similarly revealed that gender equality has barely improved in the last decade, while the EHRC has called on employers to eliminate regressive attitudes by joining the Working Forward initiative – a national campaign to improve business practice regarding expectant and new mothers.
“Discrimination not only disadvantages individuals, it also means that employers themselves are missing out on attracting and retaining female talent,” said Ben Willmott, CIPD head of public policy.
“Much more needs to be done to help organisations improve their people management practices, particularly smaller firms, given the most negative attitudes to pregnancy and maternity in the survey are among those with 250 or fewer employees.
“Investment in manager capability is essential to challenge unlawful, short-sighted and unethical practice.”
The EHRC previously warned that companies could face unlimited fines for failing to report on their gender pay gaps by the deadline of 31 March 2018 for public sector organisations, and 5 April 2018 for other affected businesses, and may issue unlawful act notices against those that do not accept the offer of an agreement and are found to have breached the regulations as a result of the investigation.