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How Can We Reduce Maternity Discrimination?

30/07/2015 15:24 BST | Updated 28/07/2016 10:59 BST

The last week has seen a mixed bag of news. On the one hand, Laura Kuenssberg became the first female politics editor of BBC News in a field of candidates which, if reports are to be believed, was dominated by women. Rachel Treweek was also consecrated as Bishop of Gloucester, becoming the Church of England's first female diocesan bishop.

On the other hand, a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission estimated that around 54,000 new mothers are being forced out of their jobs in Britain each year.

On the one hand, there is progress for individual women, which must be a good thing, but on the other discrimination continues, in part because there are more women staying in the workforce after having children. There has been a massive shift in the number of working mums over the last 15 years with stay at home mums going from being the majority to a minority. There are many reasons for this, but finances and technology are the main drivers. It takes a while, however, for attitudes to catch up to reality.

Maternity discrimination is also just the tip of an iceberg of problems facing working mums that includes hours that are changed so it is impossible to find childcare to cover, flexible working being taken away when a new manager joins and part-time roles being changed into full-time ones.

What can be done about it, particularly at a time when sex discrimination cases have plummeted due to the introduction of fees to access employment tribunals? The EHRC is raising awareness about the problem and providing support and advice on managing maternity to employers. That assumes employers want to do the right thing or are open to understanding the benefits of doing so. But what if they don't and aren't?

How can a playing field which is often so tilted against mums in the workplace, which makes women feel like a problem when they have children, be levelled? Surely the only way is if having children is recognised as part of normal working life for men and women, as a social need and not merely a "lifestyle choice" that can be wholly individualised.

Shared parenting

Having children is usually a joint enterprise and research shows that children benefit from both maternal and paternal input from an early age.

Yet we continue to assume that the having of and caring for children mainly only affects a woman's career progression and that this is usually a negative.

The introduction of Shared Parental Leave is a start to putting the issue of how equality at home affects equality in the workplace on the agenda, particularly since new research from Australia suggests social expectations and assumptions affect men and women's attitudes to gender equality from the moment their first baby is born.

Professor Janet Baxter, who led the research, said she didn't believe there was a biological explanation for the change in attitudes to gender roles, given that there is no similar shift in some, particularly non-western, societies where there is more sharing of childcare.

She said: "It seems more likely that the way we organise work, parental leave arrangements, public services for children, schools and social networks create structural barriers to involved fatherhood and also encourage the traditional social construction of women's mothering role. Whether you are male or female, you have to be very confident and persistent against overwhelming odds not to conform amid such powerful messaging."

Shared Parental Leave is a start to beginning the conversation on shared parenting, even if most researchers are not optimistic about its take-up. A new forum is promoting greater debate of what can be done to support opening up different options than the traditional ones.

WorkCareShare.com claims to be the first forum which brings mums and dads together to promote equality at home and at work through a focus on leave entitlements for mothers and fathers with babies and young children. The aim is to build a wider alliance with gender equality organisations, unions, human resources departments and family/child welfare services - and with mothers and fathers who believe in and want more equal opportunity.

The present system is not fair on either men or women. It allows for little choice. It condemns men to working long hours and seeing little of their families often at the expense of their partners' careers and their relationships. But it is not going to change overnight. It is all very well arguing the business case for diversity - which is vital - but at the basic level this is about fairness and equality and whether we actually want that, both at home and at work.