Responding to a new report on pregnancy discrimination at work from the Women and Equalities Committee, Laura Harrison, People and Strategy Director at the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development comments: “It’s inexcusable that discrimination against pregnant women at work is still a problem in the UK. Besides the damage this discrimination causes to women’s self-confidence and earnings potential, there’s a resultant loss of value for employers – not just in terms of talent but possibly also of the engagement of women. Who wants to give 100% when their commitment to work or value in the workplace is being questioned? That’s hardly a fair deal. The consequence of this loss of talent and engagement to the UK economy is obvious. We know the economy will only reach its potential when it builds and sustains opportunities for women to be as economically active as men.
“Discrimination legislation is well-covered by employment law in the UK. But by this point in our evolution towards equal rights at work, this legislation should be a safeguard to ensure minimum practice, not something that women are routinely required to call upon. Doubly challenging is that whilst we are protected against discrimination on multiple grounds, it can be within our control how much or if we choose to disclose our status (e.g. our age or sexual orientation and some disabilities). There’s no such choice for pregnant women – there’s an inevitability around conversations about the pregnancy and upcoming maternity leave from the point at which the pregnancy becomes obvious.
Many may not be in an environment where this is a comfortable reality and employers must find ways to ensure that open and honest conversation during an employees’ pregnancy is the norm. Employers must be alert to, and actively pre-empt risks of discrimination, from the point at which a woman makes her pregnancy known. Not only would such an approach give women the opportunity to let colleagues know how they feel, but it’s also a chance for any potentially discriminatory problems to be caught early on and stopped.
“Line managers are the key to this open dialogue, so it’s important that they are well-equipped with the knowledge and people management skills to ensure they do not discriminate against pregnant women and new mothers themselves. They also need to act as champions for the value that women bring to the workforce, whichever stage they are at, to mitigate against discrimination elsewhere.
“HR plays an important role, ensuring that good paternity, maternity and parental leave practices are as coherent and inclusive as possible, and communicated sufficiently to everyone. Practices for women before and after maternity leave should be as smooth as possible. For example, Keeping in touch (KIT) days, although voluntary, are a great way of reinforcing commitment from the employee to their organisation and vice versa. They will also help women feel more inclined to return to the organisation after their maternity leave, creating a business case for the employer. Equally important are the flexible and inclusive working practices that enable women returning to work so they feel welcomed back to the organisations and valued by their employer.
“More broadly, employers need to encourage a supportive and inclusive culture so that people’s behaviour reflects the right values and behaviour around diversity, and this needs to come from the top. Many need to also rethink how they recruit, retain and develop female talent, as well as the value of investing in people management skills and improving workplace practices. Social expectations around diversity and equality in the workplace are on the up – employers need to make sure they aren’t left behind in this reality.”