When Sarah approached her manager at a large media company about taking maternity leave, she found herself bargaining over the duration: "I knew I wanted six months to be with my son, but she immediately started talking me down, saying four months was plenty. I felt pressured to agree to take less time". When Sarah returned to work, her manager informed her that she would not be entitled to "special treatment" and announced she'd been posted to a new job which involved travelling every few weeks, for months at a time. "I wasn't sacked, but they made it impossible for me to stay. I'd specifically said I didn't want a post which involved too much travelling for extended periods, but when I returned, that was the only job on offer to me."
Stories like Sarah's are increasingly common. A report released today by the group Working Families has revealed high levels of maternity discrimination for the third year running, reinforcing recent research suggesting this is a growing trend.
Despite this, very few women take any formal action. According to the most recent national research in 2005, of women who lost their jobs due to discrimination, 8% took action, while only 3% went to tribunal. The vast majority (71%) did nothing, a statistic advocacy group Maternity Action put down to women being "very cautious out of fear, they'll be labelled trouble makers - a lot of women simply go quietly". Sarah Jackson, chief executive of Working Families stated "we have far too many callers who, even when advised about their rights, are reluctant to take action for fear of losing their jobs". And as of this year, women taking a pregnancy discrimination claim to an employment tribunal will face fees of £1,200, deterring many more.
In 2005, the Equal Opportunity Commission found that 30,000 women each year were losing their job as a result of pregnancy discrimination. Today, campaigners describe increasing levels of unfair selection of pregnant women and new mothers for redundancy and described the discrimination as increasingly "blatant". Figures show that one in seven women in a recent survey by OnePoll had lost their job while on maternity leave. The Fawcett Society believes in times of austerity, when employers cannot afford to take any perceived risks to profits and growing business, discrimination against women in the workplace is likely to rise. The downsizing and restructuring of many companies due to the economic recession has meant a hike in redundancies, with many pregnant and new mothers adversely affected and those in less skilled jobs perceived as dispensable.
In many cases, pregnant women or new mothers are made to feel they no longer have a place within the company, with attitudes towards pregnancy increasingly hostile. Just last month, Mark Thomas, the former chief executive of BBC Studios & Post Production, was accused of declaring that "female workers of child-caring responsibilities should not hold senior management positions". Businessman Lord Alan Sugar, who'd previously stated that the way to get round the laws protecting pregnant women was not to employ them, has also criticised laws which ban interviewers from grilling women about whether they want children. And such attitudes are not restricted to a few renegades, with a government survey indicating that 24% of men thought that women on maternity leave should be made redundant before anyone else.
For Rosalind Bragg, whose organisation Maternity Action has also recorded a hike in discrimination, media coverage of pregnancy leave negatively affects women's perception of their rights: "Media coverage of maternity leave increasingly represents this as a burden on business, and this has definitely influenced women's approach to their maternity rights". The consequence of these misrepresentations is women often feel unsure about their entitlements, and guilty for demanding their rights. She added: "Many women are unaware of the law prohibiting pregnancy discrimination and do not recognize their experiences as discrimination." From the notion of ditzy mums ill-equipped to handle the pressures of work through to portrayals of 'yummy mummies'* unabashedly enjoying iced Frappuccino's while their employers foot the bill, feminist writer Glosswitch notes "almost all mummies - no matter who they are or what they're doing - are perceived to be a bit rubbish."
The very perception of pregnant woman betrays assumptions concerning their abilities and reliability. A 2007 study found that "visibly pregnant women managers are judged as less committed to their jobs, less dependable, and less authoritative, but warmer, more emotional, and more irrational than otherwise equal women managers who are not visibly pregnant". What's more, research published in the Harvard Business Review suggests bearing children means women are "judged to be significantly less competent" and were "least likely to be hired or promoted". Such perceptions are born out in the cases handled by charities like Working Families. One caller who was four months pregnant was sacked following her three month probationary period with her employer stating that she "would be focusing on other things and that she wouldn't be capable of doing the job".
Among the core concerns listed in Working Families' report is "employer imposed changes to working patterns which undermine parents' ability to combine work and childcare". The organisation found many more employers in 2012 were too quick to turn down a request for flexible working, which combined with the impact of childcare tax credit cuts, disproportionately and negatively impacts women. Britain has some of the highest childcare costs in the world, in an economic climate which renders the cost of childcare relative to wages so disadvantageous as to push women towards non-remunerated work within the home - even when they'd rather be out working for a salary.
Among the incidents handled by the group was an employer insisting that a female staffer work a late night rota. If she did, she could not pick her child up in time from nursery and it would cost her between £60 and £80 in charges for every late night worked. Despite informing the employer that she was struggling to feed her children and was feeling "completely and utterly desperate", her employer responded that it was "her choice to have children". For many women, flexible hours are not simply a luxury, they are a basic necessity allowing them to remain in the workplace.
Liz Gardiner, head of policy for Working Families believes the government's Children and Families Bill, which seeks to promote a system of shared parental leave, including extending the right to request flexible working to all employees, could help tackle pregnancy related discrimination. "Improving rights for fathers to take paternity leave, would make it harder for employers to view women of child bearing age as the problem". She also believes it is high time an EHRC review was conducted to document what she deems a 'hardening of attitudes among employers'. At a time when the UK ranks 18th of 27 countries on job security and pay for women, the 'motherhood penalty' perpetuates the glass ceiling and fails to recognise the true contribution of mothers to society.