Following questions on pregnancy and maternity discrimination with the minister for Women and Equality in the House of Commons on Thursday 15 October, I am publishing the letter I wrote to Nicky Morgan. I have since had a response and will be meeting with her team alongside Angela Raynor MP, in the next couple of months.
Dear Nicky Morgan MP,
Thank you for asking to hear more about my project and campaign 'Pregnant Then Screwed'.
My project exists to give women a safe place to tell their stories of pregnancy and maternity discrimination. By exposing this systemic problem and creating a community for the victims, I hope that together we can make a case for recognition, respect and change. In addition to the terrific report compiled by the EHRC and backed by your Government, I would like to offer some further points for consideration.
The EHRC report stated that approximately 54,000 women a year are pushed out of their jobs from the point they announce that they are pregnant. This figure does not account for women who are self employed, women who are demoted, or those who do not receive the promotions they deserve, and it does not account for the women who are unknowingly penalised for being of childbearing age. This shocking figure of 54,000 is just the tip of the iceberg.
A major challenge is that women who are victims of discrimination don't want to talk about it publicly. They are scared they will be branded a trouble-maker and that speaking out will turn potential future employers off. If they still work for the company who has treated them unfairly, they may feel that with the added responsibility of child raising, they cannot afford to lose their job or damage good relationships with their colleagues. I have a wealth of stories that back up all of these claims, please do let me know if you would like to read any specific and shocking examples (www.pregnantthenscrewed.com)
There are laws, structures and systems that we can alter which I strongly believe would improve this situation. For the purpose of this letter I would like to focus on one specific issue that I believe has a major impact on women accessing justice when they have been discriminated against, but I will also briefly mention some of the other key challenges as this is a complex and nuanced subject.
The time limit to take a case to Tribunal
A statistic published by onepoll in 2013 stated that only 3% of women who face pregnancy discrimination seek legal advice. This figure does not surprise me from the many women I have spoken to and the hundreds of stories I have received. There are various structures that prevent women from challenging pregnancy discrimination effectively but the two worst offenders are the introduction of Tribunal Fees and the 3 month time limit. It is the 3 month time limit that I would like to see amended. I believe that if this is extended it will have a huge impact on a new mother's potential to access justice. As the law stands, from the point at which you have been subjected to any kind of workplace discrimination you have 3 months less 1 day, to take a case to Tribunal. For maternity discrimination, those 3 months often come at a time when you are exhausted, lacking in confidence and navigating the complex world of motherhood. Making your lunch every day can feel like climbing Mount Everest; masterminding an employment tribunal would feel nigh-on impossible. Dealing with an Employment Tribunal whilst pregnant can risk the health of your unborn child, indeed it is the main reason I did not take my own employer to Tribunal. I have also received many stories from women who have suffered from mental health issues and some who have given birth prematurely due to the stress of the Tribunal process. 3 months is an extremely short amount of time and no consideration is given for the mental and physical health of the mother or the baby/fetus. It is also worth noting that other equality claims have a much longer time limit, such as equal pay claims which are up to 6 years in the crown court. Employment Tribunals have extended the time limit for part time worker pension cases to 6 months less 1 day so there is precedent offering a promising basis for potential change.
Whilst I understand that there is the just and equitable rule, under which a Tribunal can use its discretion to extend the time limit in limited circumstance, this simply does not go far enough.
I can see two options following discussions with legal professionals:
The preferable option is that the time limit is extended to six months less one day, aligning itself with other discrimination claims outside of the workplace and part time worker pension claims; or-
If it is felt, for reasons unknown to me, that this is an impossible task, there is an alternative that would go some way to ease the problem. The Government could provide guidelines of circumstances in which the just and equitable principle should be used, making a strong case for time limits to be extended for victims of discrimination, when they are pregnant or in the early days of maternity leave.
Laws, structures and systems impacting pregnancy and maternity discrimination
There are many other laws, structures and systems that deserve consideration when exploring this issue and I would like to mention some of the others briefly. I would of course be very happy to discuss each one in more detail.
Firstly, I do not believe that all employers behave like this out of malice, but out of ignorance. They panic, believing pregnancy could have a detrimental impact on their stability. Many are unaware of what the laws are. A structured programme of training for employers explaining their legal obligations and the benefit to their business of flexible working and supporting their female staff during pregnancy and postpartum, would help reduce discrimination.
Secondly, with more and more women doing work on temporary contracts and being self employed, I believe it is really important to improve support and legislation to protect these women if they become pregnant. It is also really important that the Government takes an active role in encouraging employers to offer more flexible working terms. Once you have had a child you discover that it is almost impossible to manage working full time alongside caring for your child. Most people are reluctant to place their baby in full time child care and therefore they need part time jobs or other flexible options such as working from home outside of office hours. Part time jobs are very hard to find and usually pay a lot less than full time. Many employers are also very reluctant to be flexible once an employee returns to work, causing high levels of stress for the parent or ultimately resulting in them leaving their jobs. I believe job adverts should have to state their flexible working options and if the job does not have flexible working options, a valid business reason must be stated.
Thirdly, I would be very keen to see a system similar to the Nordic countries implemented for parental leave. These systems offer what is affectionately termed as a 'daddy quota' to encourage the father to take time off and play a more active role in family life. The quota varies from country to country but is usually around three months and it is paid. Shared parental leave goes some way to easing the burden on women, but it does not go far enough. A system that actively encourages more men to play an active role in their child's first year of life would have benefits for women, men and children. I would like to see fathers given six weeks paid leave at 90% of their salary, the same as it is for mothers.
Finally, there is little access to free, good quality legal advice when a woman is the victim of discrimination. If this was more readily available I believe more women would seek justice through the legal system preventing more employers from discriminating.
I know I don't need to emphasise the impact pregnancy and maternity discrimination is having on women, on the economy and on society as a whole. I have personally experienced the effect this has on your confidence and your career first-hand and I know how difficult it is to pursue justice. Amends to the systems and structures above, would offer women a greater opportunity to achieve their full potential. By engineering a system that allows fathers to play a more active role in a child's life stronger families are created, discrimination towards women decreases (as both parents become just as likely to request leave and flexible working), and you improve the health and well-being of children.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I would be delighted to discuss any of these issues further and will report on your dedication to this matter to my large and growing community of supporters I have convened, both within and outside the media. I will be actively supporting any positive amendments that can be made to help improve a woman's chance for equality in the workplace.
Founder, Pregnant Then Screwed