Pregnancy and maternity discrimination forces thousands of new mothers out of their jobs

Published: 24 Jul 2015

New research suggests that around 54,000 new mothers may be forced out of their jobs in Britain each year. 

These findings are based on a survey of over 3,200 women by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, in which 11% of the women interviewed reported having been dismissed, made compulsorily redundant where others in their workplace were not, or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their jobs.  If replicated across the population as a whole, this could mean as many as 54,000 women losing their jobs each year.

The research, carried out in partnership with the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, also found around 1 in 5 new mothers experienced harassment or negative comments from their colleagues, employer or manager when pregnant or returning from maternity leave.

The survey is the largest of its kind, with a total of more than 6,000 mothers and employers across Great Britain taking part in interviews about their experiences and practices.

The research also shows that many employers, across a range of industries, say they are firm supporters of female staff during and after their pregnancies and find it easy to comply with the law.

The project found:

  • 84% of employers believe that supporting pregnant workers and those on maternity leave is in the interests of their organisations;
  • Around 8 out of 10 employers agree that pregnant women and those returning from maternity leave are just as committed to their work as their colleagues;
  • Two thirds of employers don’t think that pregnancy puts an unreasonable cost burden on the workplace. Firms that have recent experience of employing pregnant women are more positive; and
  • Two thirds of mothers (66%) felt their employer supported them willingly during pregnancy and when they returned to work.

However, the research suggests that for some women pregnancy and maternity at work is not a positive experience;

  • 10% are discouraged by their employer from attending antenatal appointments;
  • 9% said that they were treated worse by their employer on their return to work than they were before pregnancy;
  • More than one in 20 (7%) said they were put under pressure to hand in their notice;
  • When mothers were allowed to work flexibly, around half reported negative consequences such as receiving fewer opportunities at work or feeling that their opinion was less valued; and
  • The impact on younger mothers -those under 25 years old - is greater in many areas, with around 6% experiencing dismissal compared with 1% across all age groups.

Caroline Waters, Deputy Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said:

"This research reveals the worrying levels of discrimination and disadvantage at work that women still face today. Not only is discrimination unlawful, but it is also bad for business.

"That’s why today we’re launching a major initiative to bring this issue into the public eye, improve awareness of the law and work with business and other groups to find workable solutions."

Dianah Worman, diversity adviser for the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, said:

"The findings of this important research show how employers are losing female talent by default. It’s a wake-up call about checking against weak employment practices that cause such negative experiences for mums who want to work. 

"It's time for employers to do some housekeeping in their organisations to make sure hidden problems and difficulties are surfaced and dealt with quickly to ensure they have both diverse and inclusive working environments.

"This will allow them to benefit from the added value women can contribute. At a time when the war for talent is hotting up, action is essential. It’s nonsense for talent to be wasted and discrimination in pregnancy and maternity, whether intended or not, is an urgent area to be addressed."

Publication of this research marks the launch of the Commission’s #worksforme awareness initiative to reduce pregnancy and maternity discrimination. The Commission is providing practical advice and information for women and employers on their rights and responsibilities, as well as a practical toolkit with a step by step guide for employers on managing pregnancy and maternity.

The #worksforme resources will help employers to understand what they must do when an employee is pregnant, on maternity leave or returning to work, and how to ensure they are creating an environment that works for everyone.


This report is a UK wide report and will be followed in October with Scotland-specific data, along with case studies and recommendations.

To be kept up to date with publication dates or to request interviews with the EHRC in Scotland and Scottish case studies, please contact 0141 228 5974, out of hours 07854 193592.

Notes to editors

The Equality and Human Rights Commission commissioned the research in partnership with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The research company IFF Research Ltd interviewed 3,254 mothers with a child under 2 years old and 3,034 workplaces across the UK in the largest ever survey of its kind.

Discrimination against pregnant women and those on maternity leave is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010.

It is unlawful for an employer to treat a woman unfavourably because she is pregnant, is ill because of her pregnancy, is on maternity leave, has taken maternity leave or has tried or intends to take maternity leave.

Examples of discrimination include:

  • Making a woman redundant because she is pregnant, or on maternity leave
  • Not offering the same training or promotion opportunities to a woman because she is pregnant or on maternity leave
  • Dismissing a woman because of pregnancy-related sickness
  • Dismissing a woman on maternity leave shortly before she is due to return to work (or after she returns) and keeping the person covering her maternity leave on instead
  • Refusing a pregnant employee reasonable time off for ante-natal appointments

Please visit here for the Code of Practice on Employment

The last comprehensive study on these issues was undertaken in 2005, by the Equal Opportunities Commission, which estimated that 30,000 mothers (7%) were forced out of their jobs each year. This figure included voluntary redundancy; those who were offered an alternative position; and, those made redundant as part of a wider round of redundancies at the mother’s workplace.

Additional key statistics of note:

  • Around one in seven mothers (15%) felt that treatment by colleagues, line managers or employers had a negative impact on their health or stress levels during pregnancy. For single mothers this increased to 25%
  • Mothers working for small businesses were less likely to report experiencing negative consequences as a result of flexible working requests (41% vs average 51%)
  • Single mothers were more likely to report that they felt under pressure to hand in their notice after telling their employer they were pregnant (14% vs 7% for all mothers)
  • 10% of mothers under 25 reported they felt so poorly treated they had to leave their work compared to 5% of mothers over 40
  • One in four (26%) of mothers reported too little contact with their employers during their maternity leave.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is a statutory body established under the Equality Act 2006. It operates as an independent body to protect and promote equality and human rights in Great Britain. It aims to encourage equality and diversity, eliminate unlawful discrimination, and promote and protect human rights. The Commission enforces equality legislation on age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation. It encourages compliance with the Human Rights Act 1998 and is accredited by the UN as an ‘A status’ National Human Rights Institution.

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