Research highlights discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace

A survey published by the Equal Opportunities Commission in February 2005 highlights the extent to which pregnant women and new mothers experience discrimination in the workplace. Nearly half of the women surveyed who had worked while pregnant said they encountered some form of related discrimination. This feature outlines the study’s main findings and examines employer and union stances on the issue.

Research findings released in February 2005 by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) quantify the extent to which women experience discrimination at work during pregnancy, maternity leave and on their return to work after giving birth. The study forms part of the EOC’s 'Pregnant and productive ' campaign, and is the first ever investigation into pregnancy discrimination across UK workplaces. The survey was based on telephone interviews with 1,006 women who had recently given birth and worked while pregnant.

Key findings

Key findings from the research are:

  • 7% of working women were either dismissed, made redundant or left their jobs due to pregnancy discrimination;
  • 45% of women who had worked while pregnant said they experienced 'tangible discrimination' such as denial of training opportunities and changes in job description;
  • 21% had faced discrimination that may have led directly to financial loss;
  • 5% were put under pressure to hand in their notice after announcing their pregnancy; and
  • only half the women had a health and safety risk assessment carried out.

Women working in the retail and hospitality/consumer services sectors were the most likely to have been dismissed, made redundant or left their jobs due to pregnancy-related discrimination. Others most likely to have experienced discrimination were women at either end of the occupational spectrum, in management, sales and customer service jobs; women who had been working for their employer for less than a year when pregnant; and women working in establishments with fewer than 10 staff. There was also some indication that women who were treated badly during pregnancy were less likely to return to work. However, according to the research, only a small proportion of those who experienced negative treatment took any steps to redress it.

The findings resonate with other studies undertaken for the campaign. In an interim report, The tip of the iceberg, published in September 2004, the EOC warned that pregnant women can 'face pay cuts, demotion, hostile treatment or are made to work in an unsafe environment'. It recommended that the law needs to be clearer and more easily accessible and that both families and employers require more support. However, preliminary EOC research findings into the knowledge and attitudes of 450 employers suggest that a lack of awareness and understanding of legal obligations could be preventing many businesses from managing pregnancy effectively. Julie Mellor, who chairs the EOC, said: 'Women should not be penalised simply for being pregnant. The impact on women, their partners and families, and on the health of their baby can be disastrous.' She added: 'Although some employers knowingly flout the law, many businesses do face genuine challenges in managing pregnancy and simply don’t know what their responsibilities are or what help is available to them. We need urgent action from the government to provide more information and support for pregnant employees and their employers.'

The EOC has called on the government to:

  • give employers a 'right to request' that employees indicate their planned return date much earlier during maternity leave where possible; and
  • provide a written statement of maternity rights and employer responsibilities to every pregnant woman.

Union response

The EOC’s investigation into pregnancy-related discrimination reinforces the efforts of the Trades Union Congress and individual unions to improve women’s working conditions and labour market attachment. Its study findings also correspond with those of recent research conducted by unions themselves. In May 2004, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW), the retail union, conducted the largest ever sectoral survey of over 1,200 pregnant women who work in retail outlets. It found that a lack of awareness among retail sector employers could be putting the health and well-being of pregnant women and unborn babies at risk. The poll found that 62% of women reported a negative change in the attitude of their employer towards them during pregnancy. A quarter of respondents said they were ignored and made to feel marginalised. John Hannett, USDAW general secretary, commented: 'Women who asked for help were told to stop complaining, repeated requests for maternity uniforms fell on deaf ears, and women were excluded from decisions on the basis that they were pregnant.'

The union says that its research provides proof that retail employers may not fully understand their obligations towards pregnant workers. The survey revealed serious safety concerns, for example, with many retail employers unaware of what constitutes 'suitable alternative work' for pregnant employees. Over two-thirds of pregnant women were not properly protected at work because their employers were ignoring a legal duty to carry out risk assessments.

Employers’ perspective

EOC suggestions for longer notice periods and for employers to contact women during their maternity leave to discuss a return-to-work date were welcomed by employers. This would ease administration and planning and reduce business costs. According to John Cridland, deputy director-general of the Confederation for British Industry: 'Maternity leave notification periods must be improved as current arrangements leave too much room for uncertainty. Return-to-work notice periods should be increased to three months and employers need to be able to contact mothers during maternity leave to confirm when they will be returning to work.'

Although small employers only have to deal with pregnancy at work on average once every 10 years, Peter Firth from the Federation of Small Businesses, who is a member of the EOC’s pregnancy taskforce, said: 'The reality is that mothers and pregnant women can experience discrimination in the workplace. But the reality is also that employers find administering maternity rights a headache.'

Both bodies have also called on the government to take back the administration of maternity pay. From its consultation with business organisations, the EOC found that for small businesses the costs of covering maternity leave can be as high as GBP 5,000-7,500. While employers can claim back maternity pay from the state, additional costs come from covering posts, the loss of skills and experience, management and administrative time. The 'best' employers establish dialogue with employees over maternity leave from the outset, and by offering flexibility manage to get over 90% of women returning to work for them after maternity leave. Presently, on average only 47% of women return to work for the same employer.


The EOC’s investigation has brought to light the considerable problem of discrimination arising from the unfair treatment of pregnant women and new mothers in many UK workplaces. Its recommendations identify pregnancy-related discrimination at work as the responsibility of the government, employers, employees and their representatives. This is made particularly clear by calls for greater information from the government to employers and employees about maternity rights and responsibilities. The EOC’s call for dialogue much earlier between employers and women on maternity leave, and for more support for working women with children generally, recognises that 'flexibility at work cuts both ways' and helps to position the issues surrounding pregnancy-related discrimination more centrally within dialogue over evolving family-friendly work practices and policies.

Employer organisations have emphasised the need for women to make active choices about their careers and related caring responsibilities. Yet the EOC’s study findings suggest that even such a 'pre-emptive' approach by women cannot protect them against pregnancy-related discrimination at work - despite the 'business sense' of treating all existing and returning employees equitably. Moreover, the research observed that few women who encounter pregnancy-related discrimination in the workplace take steps to counter it. This may underscore the varying nature of their circumstances, whereby some women more than others are empowered to make choices about their relationship to the workplace. The provision of stronger legal protection in itself may not be sufficient without adequate information about employment rights and without the added protection of trade union support. (J. Parker, IRRU)

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