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Huff Post: Maternity Discrimination on the Rise as Women Pay the Price of Austerity

Posted on the 15 March 2013 by Mfrancoiscerrah @MFrancoisCerrah

My latest at the Huff Post:

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 traveling 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 traveling 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 recognize ‎the true contribution of mothers to society. ‎

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