Employers in the dark ages over recruitment of pregnant women and new mothers

Published: 19 Feb 2018

British employers are ‘living in the dark ages’ and have worrying attitudes towards unlawful behaviour when it comes to recruiting women, new statistics from the Equality and Human Rights Commission reveal.

Showing that many businesses’ attitudes are decades behind the law, the survey of 1,106 senior decision makers in business found around a third (36%) of private sector employers agree that it is reasonable to ask women about their plans to have children in the future during recruitment.

Register for free membership of Working Forward to find out how your organisation can join others in the fight to end discrimination against new parents.

The new statistics also reveal six in 10 employers (59%) agree that a woman should have to disclose whether she is pregnant during the recruitment process, and almost half (46%) of employers agree it is reasonable to ask women if they have young children during the recruitment process.

Conducted by YouGov on behalf of the Commission, the survey was commissioned to understand managers’ attitudes around pregnancy and maternity discrimination.

Looking beyond antiquated recruitment beliefs, the survey also found that, when it comes to maternity discrimination in the workplace, 44% of employers agree that women should work for an organisation for at least a year before deciding to have children.

What’s more, the same number agrees that women, who have had more than one pregnancy while in the same job, can be a ‘burden’ to their team.

In fact, 40% of employers claim to have seen at least one pregnant woman in their workplace ‘take advantage’ of their pregnancy, whilst around a third believe that women who become pregnant and new mothers in work are ‘generally less interested in career progression’ when compared to other employees in their company.

Financially, four in 10 (41%) employers agreed that pregnancy in the workplace puts ‘an unnecessary cost burden’ on the workplace.

The Commission is calling on employers to put a stake in the ground to eliminate these attitudes and, more importantly, pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace for good.

This can be achieved by employing best practice and joining the Working Forward initiative to improve business practices and make British businesses the best they can be for pregnant women and new parents.  

Rebecca Hilsenrath, Chief Executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said:

'It is a depressing reality that, when it comes to the rights of pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace, we are still living in the dark ages.

'We should all know very well that it is against the law not to appoint a woman because she is pregnant or might become pregnant. Yet we also know that women routinely get asked questions around family planning in interviews. It’s clear that many employers need more support to better understand the basics of discrimination law and the rights of pregnant women and new mothers.

'Working Forward provides this support. We need more businesses to join. Work with us if you are interested in a better deal for women in the workplace.'

Sarah, a mother of two young children who was made redundant during maternity leave for her first child, explains:

'It’s sad to think that things like this are still happening. I feel angry all the time that you can be a mother with young children and, unless you’re in a job that protects you, your whole world can come tumbling down – out of your control.

'It is essential for employers to be honest and ensure there is good communication between them and those on maternity leave so that pregnant women and new mothers are given the support they deserve.'

While there is a clear need for change in employer perceptions, the poll also highlighted that employers are struggling to provide pregnant women and new mothers with the support they need.

Half (51%) of employers agree that there is sometimes resentment amongst employees towards women who are pregnant or on maternity leave. Furthermore, around a third (36%) of employers disagree that it is easy to protect expectant or new mothers from discrimination in the workplace. 

The Working Forward campaign asks businesses to commit to taking action on at least two of the three action areas in addition to leadership: employee confidence, supporting line managers and flexible working. It also provides employers with advice, guidance and resources to deliver on their pledges.

Current members include Nationwide, Royal Mail, Transport for London, and many more.

Julie McCarthy, Equality Diversity and Inclusion Manager at Nationwide Building Society says: 

'We want to build an agile, talented and diverse workforce, which reflects our equally diverse membership, and society as a whole. Maternity related policies are an integral part of this.

'As a result of the Working Forward initiative we have seen some incredibly positive results across the society with regards to employees striking a better balance between their work and their personal lives.'

Ben Willmott, Head of Public Policy at the the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the professional body for human resources and people development, said: 

'These findings show that there are still far too many employers who don’t understand or respect employment law as it relates to pregnant women and new mothers. Discrimination not only disadvantages individuals, but also means that employers themselves are missing out on attracting and retaining female talent. 

'Much more needs to be done to help organisations improve their people management practices, particularly smaller firms, given the most negative attitudes to pregnancy and maternity in the survey are among those with 250 or fewer employees. Investment in manager capability is essential to challenge unlawful, short-sighted and unethical practice.'

The release of the new statistics coincides with a round table event hosted today (Monday 19 February) by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, focusing on women in the workplace.

The event, which will see discussion around topical issues including the gender pay gap and pay reporting, as well as sexual harassment in the workplace, is one of a series held during the course of the Commission’s 10th anniversary year. 

You can register for free membership of Working Forward to find out how your organisation can join others in the fight to end discrimination against new mothers.

The Commission is urging employers to sign up to Working Forward to help end pregnancy and maternity discrimination, whilst asking the public to share their pregnancy and maternity-related experiences with the hashtag #maternitywrongs.

Notes to editors

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Statistics 

The statistics (opens new window) are based on an online survey conducted using YouGov’s B2B Business Omnibus. Data was collected between 11 to 14 September 2017 and 27 November to 4 December 2017 from a total of 1,106 business decision makers in the private sector.

The results were weighted using official data on business population estimates from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, so as to reflect numbers of employees working for British businesses of different sizes (excluding businesses with no employees).

Unless otherwise stated, all figures quoted above are from YouGov Plc. 

Members of Working Forward

Over 280 businesses have joined Working Forward since it was established.

Founding members include Barclays, BT Group, Ford, HSBC, John Lewis Partnership, Mitie, Nationwide, Royal Mail and Transport for London, while official supporters include The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Institute of Directors (IOD).

See our list of members on our website

Joining Working Forward 

To find out more information on membership benefits and how your business can sign up visit our Working Forward campaign page or email our Working Forward team at the Commission.

The Commission is urging employers to sign up to Working Forward to help end pregnancy and maternity discrimination. 

#maternitywrongs

The Commission is asking the public to share their pregnancy and maternity related experiences with the hashtag #maternitywrongs

Additional quotes

Ursula Tavender, founder of Mumbelievable, consults with companies wanting to move towards a more supportive, flexible and inclusive culture for working parents. Ursula said:

‘This research is shocking and highlights the culture of bias against not only mothers but all women in the workplace. The perception that mothers fall behind, are less committed or ambitious is absurd. The fact is that companies with more women in senior positions are more prosperous and profitable; therefore it is in the interest of employers to eliminate conscious and unconscious bias towards pregnant women and new mothers. Women are very capable of using both their brains and their uterus simultaneously. Bad communication and mismanagement are to blame, not mothers.’

'There are almost five million mothers working in the UK, and countless others who want to work but aren’t able to as they face significant barriers when attempting to return. This is a huge proportion of our workforce, and a source of distressing stories of disadvantage and untapped talent.

'We all know it’s clearly in the interests of our economy and our future to change the way business views working mothers and to embrace a more humanised culture that is truly people focused.

'This research shows we still have much work to do, and I fully support the important work by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the excellent Working Forward initiative in driving change.'

Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, adds:

'This research is shocking and highlights the culture of bias against not only mothers but all women in the workplace. The perception that mothers fall behind, are less committed or ambitious is absurd. 

'The fact is that companies with more women in senior positions are more prosperous and profitable; therefore it is in the interest of employers to eliminate conscious and unconscious bias towards pregnant women and new mothers. Women are very capable of using both their brains and their uterus simultaneously. Bad communication and mismanagement are to blame, not mothers.'

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