Workplace discrimination: when a pregnant pause becomes more long-term


Written By: Jennifer Rankin 12/06/15

Many new mothers continue to be forced out of their jobs while on maternity leave, and are unable to stand up for their rights.

At first Carol found it hard to believe her job was being axed as part of a mysterious “restructuring” plan. As a fundraiser for a large national charity she had consistently beaten her targets and knew the organisation’s finances were healthy. But surprise turned to anger when she realised her role was the only one being cut – and that this lone act of “restructuring” was happening halfway through her maternity leave.

Carol’s employer invited her to apply for other roles, but she faced “ridiculously unrealistic” deadlines. Either she had to submit a detailed application within five hours, or attend an early morning interview hundreds of miles away the next day – near-impossible demands for someone with no alternative childcare on tap.

She eventually returned to work in a more junior role paying £5,000 less – a 25% pay cut. But the new job description was almost identical to the old one.

After filing a complaint to Acas, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, her employer agreed to pay £4,000 to settle the dispute. “By the time of this I was totally in depression, crying all the time.”

Today, Carol is still on the lower salary and feels angry that no one ever owned up to demoting her. She is now looking for another job. “I feel like people are talking about me and I really can’t be myself at work.”

Carol also thinks she was lucky to be able to bring a claim through Acas after discovering her home insurance provided limited legal expenses cover. Often available as an optional add-on when people take out a policy, the cover typically protects individuals against the costs of being sued or having to make a claim against someone else, and employment disputes are usually included. Policies typically provide up to £50,000 of cover and you can expect to pay around £20 – for example, the Halifax allows people to add it to their annual home policy for £19.99.

“If I hadn’t stumbled across the cover I wouldn’t have been able to fight this,” Carol says. But her insurance didn’t stretch to a tribunal, so she was never able to challenge a costly demotion. “Even though they settled, they never admitted they were wrong. I still feel I haven’t had closure.”

Carol is just one of thousands of women who face discrimination when on maternity leave. Later this year the Equality and Human Rights Commission will publish the results of an investigation into maternity discrimination, which campaigners expect to show a sharp rise in bullying and harassment. The last detailed work on this problem in 2005, by the Equal Opportunities Commission, found that 30,000 new mothers were forced out of jobs each year, but the charity Maternity Action estimates the number is twice as high.

It argues there has been a sharp rise in discrimination since the financial crisis, pointing to the proliferation of zero-hours jobs, as well as the introduction of hefty fees for anyone taking their employer to an employment tribunal. These took effect in July 2013 and for discrimination claims, a fee of up to £1,200 is payable, made up of a £250 claim fee and a £950 hearing fee (these charges also apply to unfair dismissal, equal pay and whistleblowing claims).

Other surveys have acknowledged that the problem is widespread. More than 60% of women have said they faced discrimination after becoming pregnant, while 40% of managers admitted they were wary of hiring women of childbearing age, according to a poll by law firm Slater and Gordon.

Kiran Daurka, a lawyer at the firm, says mothers face big hurdles in making claims against their employers. Since the coalition government introduced the fees, the number of cases of maternity discrimination has fallen by 88%.

One Conservative politician last year claimed the reduction represented a fall in “vexatious” claims that had been “squeezing the life and energy from Britain’s wealth creators”. But the legal profession has poured cold water on such claims. “There is 100% no doubt that access to justice has been reduced,” says Daurka, pointing out that there has been no change in the proportion of cases that are won, lost or settled, which might have been expected if there had been a high number of vexatious claims. “We know that maternity discrimination is still rife in the workplace.”

Her doubts are shared by more than 400 employment barristers, including 40 QCs, who have concluded that the fees are a barrier to justice. The total number of claims from people challenging unfair dismissal, race, sex or disability discrimination has fallen by 60% since fees were introduced.

The Liberal Democrats called for a review of the fees while in coalition, and Vince Cable said the government appeared to have reneged on a promise to conduct a “rigorous” review within a year of their introduction. A spokesman at the Ministry of Justice says no decision has been taken to do this.

Although the former business secretary said in March that a review had been “set in motion”, a spokeswoman at his old department says: “We have no plans to publish anything.” She declined to comment on what has happened to Cable’s review, and referred questions back to the MoJ, which said in a statement: “We want people to resolve employment disputes using quicker and simpler alternatives such as arbitration and mediation. Going to court should be a last resort. That is why we set up a new early conciliation scheme which has already been used by over 60,000 people in its first nine months. For those cases which do reach tribunal, we have made sure fee waivers are available for those who can’t afford to pay.”

You may be able to get help paying the fee if you are getting certain benefits or are on a low income.

Richard Dunstan at Maternity Action believes no review could avoid the conclusion that the fees are a barrier. “They are essentially a charter for rogue and dinosaur employers. The chances of having a tribunal brought against you are very small indeed.”

Neil Carberry, the CBI’s director for employment and skills, says: “Given concerns around the level of fees, we would happily participate in any future review to check they are not putting off legitimate claimants. Maternity leave and flexible employment practices are hugely important to companies, as they help retain key staff and maintain diversity in the workplace. This is something which is both the right thing to do and good for business.”

‘Women are afraid to tell their stories’

Joeli Brearley founded Pregnant Then Screwed, “a website for women who have been discriminated against while they were pregnant or after having a baby”. She claims 60,000 women a year are forced out of their jobs due to pregnancy.

Brearley is a freelance project manager who was sacked by her main client soon after telling them she was pregnant. “It played on my mind a lot, and the more women I met who had suffered discrimination, the more I thought ‘we need to do something’.”

The first few entries on the website were written by Brearley’s friends and acquaintances, but strangers’ stories started to trickle in. Since the site launched with little fanfare in March, more than 200 women have related their experiences. Partly catharsis for women to share bruising experiences, the site is also a way to expose a problem. “This is not talked about. Women are afraid to tell their stories because they are afraid to lose their jobs, and some have to sign confidentiality agreements.”

Not all the “bad” bosses featured on the site are men, she says. “It is not women against women or men against men – it is society against pregnancy.”

The site is both depressing and compelling. One mother was warned by her boss not to get pregnant, while her colleagues opined that women with children shouldn’t do PhDs. Another faced a disciplinary procedure after taking a month off because of acute all-day morning sickness.

* Some names have been changed to protect identities


Source: The Guardian



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