A report by the Equality Commission has today revealed that around 54,000 women a year may face discrimination at work due to pregnancy. It's a scary statistic but one that at least 50% of the population won't be surprised about.
The website Pregnantthenscrewed has been flooded with stories from women sharing their experiences, ask around any toddler group and you will hear plenty more. The really blatant cases that you read about in the news and then the inherent discrimination so commonplace it is barely described as such.
I'm sure for many employers their HR teams will be making sure those boxes on diversity are ticked this week:
We have a policy on diversity - tick
We did some basic training back in 2010 - tick
We have employed (albeit reluctantly) some part time workers - tick
We even have a team that look at diversity - double tick
We have one non exec board member (out of 6) who is female - tick, tick, tick, job done
Here's the thing. All the above is a good start but policies don't work when they are not well implemented. Training can be great but sitting in a 'classroom' for an hour is unlikely to change unconscious bias. If line managers and those making the decisions on important stuff like flexible working applications and promotions aren't challenged, if empathy isn't embraced, ultimately if the culture doesn't change then it's likely that the statistics from such reports will remain.
So what else can be done?
The other day it hit me. Well actually I should probably say Caitlin Moran hit me. Not literally you understand (that would make a better story but would be completely unfounded) but metaphorically, after attending her live show. She talked about a quilt of equality - lots of women all creating smaller individual pieces of change that fit together to make one big fat difference (I'm not sure she would approve of that clunky description but this part was after the interval and the bar...) Basically she inspired me to stop waiting for some momentous change to happen and get doing.
I have returned to work twice following maternity leaves, both times the process was infuriating and slightly soul destroying. Confidence depleated, progression - er not when you 'only' work 3 days, guilty - oh yes definitely, what a bad parent to be leaving my child.
In hindsight the transitions have taught me so much. I have learnt the true power of women supporting other women, of knowing my rights and not being afraid, of how valuable and useful it can be to spend time preparing for such a big change. So finally third time round I learnt to take control of my own maternity leave.
In response to the report a new campaign launches today #worksforme - which aims to help women get clued up on all things maternity. It is a good start and a step in the right direction. More can be done in this area, it is something I am really passionate about. Prior to going off on maternity leave can be so important, which is hard because especially first time round you don't know what to expect but prevention is always easier than finding a cure wherever possible (and I know it isn't always).
I'm not about letting employers off the hook, nor about making women feel inadequate or at fault for the positions they find themselves in. I have been there, I know where I went wrong, my goal now is to ensure other women don't make the same mistakes and get the support they deserve.
(Note to employers - if you are really committed to equality then hand over the control and let those who really know how it feels create change, now that kind of trust would make a difference).
Where possible we should be the ones making decisions for ourselves and our families. Let's create peer support groups within our places of work that challenge any underlying culture of inequality (how amazing could that be, a fact sheet on how to do so will be on the Lifebulb site shortly), supporting each other to have the confidence to challenge the norm, getting clued up on our rights, feeling empowered to own our maternity leave.
Unfortunately if we don't, no one else will and what this report only highlights is that we can't afford to leave it to chance!