The pregnancy penalty

If you work in HR, then I reckon you have seen the eye roll. The ‘one of my employees has just announced she is pregnant’ eye roll.  We can be as politically correct as we like, have all the policies fit to print, but this attitude still remains in our workplaces. I know, because over the years I have seen it for myself.

Don’t believe that this happens in 2016?

Unfortunately evidence released this morning proves you horribly wrong. You can find the links to the reports, both summary and full, here.

Discrimination against pregnant workers is getting worse. The situation has actually declined over the last decade.

Sobering reading indeed. If you haven’t got time to read the full 70 or so pages of the report and recommendations, try these headlines for size:

  • Half of women reported a negative impact on their career as a result of their pregnancy or maternity leave, including being given lower level duties.
  • Around 20% saying that they had experienced harassment or negative comments as a result.
  • 11% reported being dismissed or made compulsory redundant when peers were not, or were treated so poorly they felt that they had to leave their job.
  • 10% reported that there were discouraged from attending antenatal appointments by their employer.

And finally. This statistic. Three quarters of the women surveyed had experienced a negative or positively discriminatory experience as a result of their pregnancy or maternity.  I’ll just leave that there. Three quarters.

These statistics should make us angry. Really angry.

There are predictable calls for a change in the law. For justice to become more accessible. For more protection for vulnerable groups.  For tougher rules around, inter alia, health and safety protections.

All laudable aims and suggestions.  But making it easier for women to take action when they experience discrimination  is dealing with the symptoms and not the causes.

Because fundamentally, at the heart of it, this is about attitudes. This is about mind-set and beliefs. It’s a short term view thing. It is a long overdue change thing.

I recall a discussion, not all that long ago, with a senior business leader about the gender pay gap. His belief?  It exists because women choose to do lower paid work when they have had a baby.  It’s a lifestyle choice apparently.  Yeah, because we all lack ambition once the pregnancy test reads positive.

That, right there, is part of the problem. Crappy, outdated attitudes.

So what do we actually do about it? Legislation will take us so far, but it is only part of the journey. It will help only some of those that need it.

The role of HR, the role of leaders, when it comes to tackling this problem is critical. We have to be prepared to openly challenge other people every single time we see one of these attitudes, both inside and outside our workplaces.  We have to be prepared to make a stand when we see that particular eye roll.  Which, just should you be wondering, should never, ever be done in my presence. #justsaying.


2 thoughts on “The pregnancy penalty

  1. HR Gem I’m still disappointed in the lack of parity on pay and legislation was passed on that well over 40 + years ago. I agree it’s a mind and cultural shift we need. We also need to look beyond the stats at the range of individual experiences. Sadly, I don’t have children. I did want to work flexibly and have a challenging career though. I didn’t have a legal right to request it but I asked. Sadly, my employer was interested in things remaining the same so I made my decision and left. I set up my own business and although I have clients who want certain things, largely I have found things can be different.

    Whether I am ambitious or not, have children or not, it’s about retaining talent and thinking how can we make this work at work. Laws won’t change it. They start it. Action and experience will and I agree we need more leadership, reaction, understanding and acceptance that there are a range of people out there (male and female, young and old) with different circumstances who want to work. Let’s make it happen people.

  2. I recall reading about an employer who fired an employee for becoming pregnant. Their defence was that the shop they owned was a one-person operation – a sandwich and snack shop – and made small profits. If they had to provide a year’s worth of maternity pay. and also pay someone else to cover maternity leave, the business would have been unviable.

    I’m genuinely curious – what would you have had them do? Shut down the business? Make a loss for 12 months? The owners don’t appear to have had any good options I’m aware of.

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