The Lasting Impact Of Maternity Discrimination

01/09/2016 14:44 | Updated 01 September 2016

There has been a lot around about discrimination against working mums over August. It's not just the Institute for Fiscal Studies study on the gender pay gap and this week's report from the Women and Equalities Committee. There has been research on childcare, on flexible working, more on the gender pay gap and maternity discrimination, among other news. A veritable tidal wave. Let's hope it doesn't all dry up now that people are back from their holidays.

The effects of maternity discrimination are huge and to be subjected to such negative behaviour at a time when you are pregnant can have a far more damaging impact than just losing your job. And yet it is rife.

There was a point during my working life when I hardly knew of anyone who had not suffered some sort of detrimental behaviour as a result of becoming pregnant or going on maternity leave. Most did not take action against their employer because they were about to go on maternity leave or were looking after small infants 24/7 so not in the best frame of mind to tackle employers often armed with expensive lawyers. And then, of course, there are the legal fees, including the cost of taking a case to tribunal - not something you might want to consider when you are on SMP at £138 a week.

And what about those who did manage to pursue their case? If they were successful, many had to sign some sort of gagging clause so they could not speak about what had happened afterwards. Hence the difficulty in getting people to go on the record about their personal experiences. Even if they haven't signed such a clause it can be hard to speak publicly because most industries are fairly close knit and word gets around if you are considered "difficult".

Long-term impact

So you move on - or try to. The impact of discrimination is often long-lasting, though. It's not only the loss of a job and earnings, although that can have a lifetime effect. There's also the psychological impact - the questioning of yourself because often the discrimination involves undermining the woman's ability to do a job they have spent years doing. That can also take years to overcome.

What happens to these women if they need to and want to keep working? Some of them find new jobs, hopefully in better companies - because there are better companies - and their confidence comes back bit by bit; others retrain; still others go freelance or set up their own businesses. It would be interesting to plot their life course.

I speak to a lot of mums who set up their own businesses. I'm struck by how much emphasis they put on things like employee engagement and happiness.

I also spoke recently to a male manager who is a diversity champion at his workplace. He spoke of the impact on him of witnessing discrimination against a woman friend in a previous workplace. He saw how it totally devastated her confidence and how long it had taken her to rebuild after she left the organisation. He was determined that it should never happen again under his watch. Ultimately, though, he didn't want to go on the record about it because of the industry-related pressures outlined above.

Discrimination affects everyone it touches - not just the person who is discriminated against, but their colleagues, their team, the person's family, their children.

I often wonder what children absorb from what they see around them about the world of work. I'm not sure how much they take in from the news, but they very definitely see the impact on their parents. I have three daughters. I try to emphasise the many good employers I work with.

I hope young girls and those on the brink of employment realise that their mothers - and their fathers - are not going to take discrimination lying down; that they will do all in their power to press for change to make it easier for their daughters once they enter the world of work; and that diversity in the workplace is not just about making the business case, important as that is, but about basic fairness.

You can have all the leaning in in the world and coaching in how to negotiate better pay and look confident, but when that is set against a background of overwhelming unfairness then it is just a small drop in the ocean.