EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Pregnancy discrimination in the workplace

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Almost half of all pregnant women and new mothers in the United Kingdom experience discrimination at work, according to a recent survey carried out on behalf of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC). The survey findings support the EOC’s view that more ought to be done to raise awareness among employers of their legal responsibilities and how they might manage pregnancy more effectively.

In February 2005, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) published the report Pregnancy discrimination at work: A survey of women (1.26Mb PDF), which examines the experiences of women throughout their pregnancy, maternity leave and after their return to work. The findings are based on telephone interviews with 1,006 women who had a child aged between nine and 24 months and who worked during their pregnancy. The survey results suggest that, although a majority of women found their employer to be supportive, pregnancy discrimination nevertheless is widespread in the UK.

Survey findings

The survey findings reveal that some 7% of pregnant women had been dismissed, made redundant or treated so badly they decided to quit their jobs. One in 20 women (5%) was put under pressure to hand in her notice on announcing her pregnancy. Women who had been working for their employer for less than a year at the time when they became pregnant were more likely to be discriminated against.

In all, 21% of women encountered discrimination during their pregnancy that may have led to financial loss. Almost half of the women surveyed (45%) experienced ‘tangible discrimination’, which could include being denied training opportunities or maternity leave, being given unsuitable hours or workloads, or being unfairly criticised. This figure includes the aforementioned categories who were forced to leave their jobs or faced financial loss.

Furthermore, the incidence of tangible discrimination was highest at each end of the occupational hierarchy (i.e. among managerial and unskilled staff) as well as among those working in the retail sector.

Pregnant women who worked in the retail or hospitality and consumer services sectors (15% and 13% respectively) were most likely to have been dismissed, made redundant or forced to leave their jobs due to pregnancy discrimination, as were those in establishments with fewer than 10 employees (11%).

Over one third of the women interviewed said that their employer lacked knowledge about maternity rights and benefits. Just half of the women surveyed had had a health and safety check (risk assessment) carried out on their behalf by their employer, even though this is a recommended procedure.

Taking action against discriminatory treatment

Overall, two thirds (67%) of the women interviewed stated that they did not take action against their employer because they did not feel they had experienced any problems. This might indicate that women did not always see their treatment as discriminatory or that it was not considered serious enough for them to do anything about it.

Only a small proportion (13%) of women who felt they had experienced negative treatment took formal action, such as filing an employment tribunal claim or following an internal grievance procedure. A further third (34%) of women had raised the matter with their employer or manager.

Some 17% of women who encountered problems considered filing an employment tribunal claim but only 3% of women actually did so. This may indicate that some women find the process daunting or fear repercussions from their employer (see Table).

Reasons for avoiding formal action
Reason for not following an internal grievance procedure or filing an employment tribunal claim
Reason %
Matter was settled 22
Did not want to get into trouble at work 14
I had enough to cope with, with a baby 12
Prospect was too daunting 10
I did not feel I had a good enough case 10
I did not want to damage my future career prospects 8
Too much stress/hassle 7
Did not know what to do or whom to speak to 5
I was afraid I would lose my job 3
I got another job 3
Other reason 13

Base: All mothers experiencing employment problems at any stage who considered but did not follow an internal grievance procedure or file an employment tribunal claim (unweighted) = 75%.

Returning to work

There is evidence to suggest that the treatment women receive at work while pregnant impacts on their future participation in the labour market. Over three quarters of the women who felt that their employer was very or quite supportive during their pregnancy had returned to work at the time of interview, compared with 63% of those who believed that their employer was unsupportive. One in eight mothers (13%) who were working at the time of interview stated that the way in which they had been treated had made them consider leaving work altogether. This rate increased to a fifth (20%) of women who experienced tangible discrimination.


Overall, the report found that only 25% of mothers with young children had not encountered any form of discrimination, workplace unpleasantness or poor employer practice during pregnancy, maternity leave or on returning to work. The other 75% had experienced problems in at least one of these three areas.

The research supports the EOC’s view that more ought to be done to raise awareness among employers of their legal responsibilities and how they might manage pregnancy more effectively. It also highlights the importance of women having access to information about their rights and trade union support to help them combat pregnancy discrimination; many women in UK workplaces still lack such information.

Jonathan Payne, University of Warwick

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