Maternity discrimination: why do we continue to stereotype returning mothers?

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While progress is being made to combat maternity discrimination, the problem of returning mothers being stereotyped and misrepresented remains - and this needs to stop if employers want to hang onto these valuable employees. 

Despite pregnancy and maternity being a protected characteristic under The Equality Act 2010, three in four mothers (77%) said they had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy, maternity leave, and on their return from maternity leave, according to a report from The Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The statistics come from a survey of 3,254 mothers in Great Britain. If scaled up, the findings mean that as many as 400,000 mothers have some form of negative or discriminatory experience every year.

50% of mothers talk of negative impact

Half of mothers described a negative impact on their opportunity, status or job security.

This included requests for flexible working leading to negative consequences, being given unsuitable work or workloads, not being adequately informed about promotion opportunities while on maternity leave, or feeling treated with less respect or that their opinion was less valued.

To some extent or other, a large proportion of mothers are having experiences that are at best unpleasant and at worst unlawful. Despite this, many of them choose to stay silent about it at work.

What do employers think?

The EHRC also completed 3,034 survey interviews with employers. Most (69%) felt they had a high level of awareness about the rights of pregnant employees.

The vast majority felt that supporting pregnant women and those on maternity leave was in the interests of their organisation.

Given that most employers have awareness of the rights of employees, and believe it’s in their interest to support and uphold those rights, it begs the question: why is the reported experience of mothers so different?

Lack of awareness

Although the majority of employers stated they had a high level awareness about the rights of pregnant employees, 31% did not.

This was more likely to be the case in small companies, who were less likely to have functional expertise from HR, legal, or employee relations departments.

Without this kind of support, that large companies take for granted, it’s not hard to see how smaller companies might inadvertently breach the legal protections afforded to pregnant employees.

In many, but not all cases, such breaches won’t be consciously made, but may instead arise from a failure by business owners to seek guidance on employees’ rights and entitlements, and how best to support them through the parental transition.

Challenges for smaller companies

In our experience small companies usually want to do a great job for employees, but it isn’t always easy.

Companies can reclaim statutory maternity pay, and small employers may qualify for higher relief, but providing enhanced maternity benefits creates expense that many companies’ cash flow and profitability simply won’t stretch to.

The absence of just one employee from a small enterprise can adversely impact its ability to function and deliver for its customers.

You’ll find this example useful...

At a small but successful design agency with seven employees, the recent pregnancies of two of key designers created a number of practical problems for the business.

As a generous employer, the owner wanted to provide more than statutory maternity pay, to enable his workers to enjoy more time off with their new families.

In so doing he created additional expense for his business above and beyond their enhanced maternity pay: the longer they were off, the longer he would have to fund the cost of short term replacements. It was double whammy for his business.

Fortunately, because the business was performing well, he could to afford to do both. Thanks to its open and family friendly culture, the designers felt comfortable talking about their plans, enabling the owner to plan in advance for their absence.

Furthermore, he is incentivising their return with bonus payments. This is not a cynical enticement to encourage the women to cut short their maternity; it is a genuine reflection of the regard in which they’re held, and their importance to the success of the business.

Less interested in career progression and promotion?

Digging deeper into the data, another candidate for the disparity between employer intent and employee experience emerges: around one in five employers (17%) believed pregnant women and new mothers were less interested in career progression and promotion than other employees.

Beyond this, 7% felt that pregnant women and those returning from maternity leave were less committed to work than other employees.

Even among employers who can’t claim ignorance as an excuse for their actions, the experience for pregnant women is not guaranteed to be positive.

Only this week a senior employment lawyer shared with me her experience of returning to work at a city law firm after the birth of her second child.

“My experience the first time was so awful that I was determined it would be better this time around, and so I returned to work within six months as that way I was guaranteed to get my previous job back.

"Even so, when I got back I discovered that all of my clients had been taken away from me, and I spent the next six months doing pretty much nothing. The message was clear: the firm no longer valued me, or believed I was committed to my work.”

Like many women she did not commence formal grievance procedures. Even with her specialised knowledge of employment law she felt too vulnerable to raise as an issue her treatment from her partners. Instead she found a role at another law firm, to which she has recently returned after the birth of her third child.

Thankfully the experience this time was much better, and she is as committed an employee as you are likely to find.

Why do we continue to stereotype pregnant employees and returning mothers?

This stereotyping of pregnant employees and returning mothers is misguided and unlawful. In any body of employees it’s likely that some are more or less committed than others, but the idea that this can be assessed based upon an employee’s pregnancy is misguided.

Of course pregnant and returning mothers have other, competing priorities to consider, and may from time-to-time necessarily prioritise their health and welfare, and that of their children.

It may be the case that some are less able to spend as much time at the office, but this does not automatically translate as a lack commitment, or interest in career progression.

Although the report focuses on the experience of mothers, we’ve heard from new fathers that requests for extended paternity or shared parental leave were also viewed as signs of diminished commitment to their careers.

Countering these prejudices and misconceptions about commitment is essential.

Global accountancy firm EY conducted a study to measure which category of workers were the most productive. Top of the list? Working mothers.

Ruthless prioritisers

Our research interviews with career mothers concur with the findings of the EY study: working mothers are ruthless prioritisers.

Their time at work is spent getting work done, not wasted day dreaming or indulging in small talk.

They don’t sweat the small stuff but instead focus on achieving what is important and essential. These qualities are the stuff of leadership development programmes - necessity, it seems, is the best tutor.

It’s counterintuitive that UK corporate culture appears to penalise those who work hard, get the job done in their contracted hours, and leave on time to pursue their leisure or spend time with their family.

Necessity, it seems, is the best tutor.

In other countries and cultures this kind of efficient commitment is lauded, and staying late at the office viewed as inefficiency or incompetence.

We have to get better at removing the language of hours worked from our evaluations of employee commitment and effectiveness.

Unfortunately company size and the sometimes misguided perceptions of the few can’t be the only reasons for the poor experiences of so many women.

What of mid-sized and large companies who have functional expertise, are better equipped to cope with employee absence, and were vocal in their support of women’s rights in the EHRC research?

These companies don’t lack commitment. Much has been done to protect the organisation and employees with necessary policies, procedures, guidelines, and rules. Log onto their intranet sites and, if you search for long enough, you’ll find everything is covered.

Job done, then? Surely you won’t find any culprits here?

Our experience reveals that it’s in the application of these policies that problems can emerge.

Too often the provision of guidance and support to pregnant women and returning mothers is delegated to untrained line managers.

If they’ve had personal experience of the parental transition you’ll likely, but not necessarily, have a better experience.

Sadly where that experiential awareness is absent, or company sponsored training is not offered, it’s unsurprising the experience is so variable.

It isn’t that managers want to do a poor job. They often just don’t know what good looks or feels like.

It’s in the application of these policies that problems can emerge.

Employees don’t always make it easy for their managers.

When we see breakdowns in relations between employees and managers it is often the result of a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the other’s intentions.

Managers, for example, have a duty to question irregular attendance arising from sickness. This doesn’t automatically mean they think you’re abusing the system - it’s what a conscientious manager should do.

Sometimes employees have unrealistic expectations, and see things only from their own perspective without considering the needs of their employer.

Requests for flexible working are one such example where we notice employees believing their request should be granted without fully appreciating the challenges it might raise for their team, division, or the business as a whole.

Employees don’t always make it easy for their managers.

Everyone has a right to ask for flexible working, but that doesn’t mean that every request will be granted.

Successful requests are those that balance the needs of the employee and the employer. Achieve this and you should expect your manager to agree your preferred work pattern, and appreciate the thoughtfulness of your approach.

Despite progressive updates to legislation, and companies offering enhanced benefits and increased flexibility for mothers and fathers, the results of the EHRC report highlight that we have a long way to go to achieve fair and equal treatment of pregnant women and returning mothers.

At WOMBA we believe that raising awareness of these challenges is the first step for any business grappling with how to be more family friendly: making it safe and okay for pregnant employees and returning mothers to share their challenges openly, and feel supported as they settle into their new, more demanding lives - and it’s essential the dialogue includes fathers too.

This is not just because there isn’t enough acknowledgement of the challenges they face balancing their work and home lives, but because debates about gender equality and diversity have to include both sexes for credible and consistent change to occur.

Small businesses that lack in house expertise on areas such as pregnancy and maternity can turn to the wealth of resources available on the EHRC website for guidance.

Investment in diversity training is essential too

Unconscious bias programmes are particularly useful for raising awareness of the invisible thought processes that unknowingly guide our attitudes and decisions.

We’re lucky to have an amazing anthropologist and Professor of Cross Cultural Studies from the State University of New York in our team who delivers insightful and engaging diversity presentations and programmes in house for companies.

If you cannot afford the investment in your own training, companies like Facebook have generously made videos of theirs available on the internet.

Managers of people need to go one step further, though.

As well as raising their awareness of what not to do, developing their skill to manage these scenarios and conversations well is the next essential step.

For pregnant women and new mothers, for whom the experience of leaving and returning to work presents a number of remarkably consistent challenges, best practice is to go the extra mile and provide a little bit of extra support, at one of the few times in their lives when they’ll need or want it.

Interested in this topic? Read Maternity discrimination: five ways line managers make maternity returners want to leave

About Daniel Godsall

Dan Godsall Founder of WOMBA

Dan is founder of WOMBA Group. He spent twenty-seven years of his career in financial services, where he rose to the level of Managing Director at Barclays Bank plc. In 2014 he made the decision to take a break from corporate life to spend time at home with his six month old son, Jesse. That experience led Dan to found WOMBA - an equality and diversity training consultancy with particular emphasis on making the world of work a better place for working parents. Dan also coaches senior leaders and executives.

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