“If you exclude 50% of the talent pool, it’s no wonder that you find yourself in a war for talent.” By Theresa J. Whitmarsh. We have all encountered situations or conversations where some people defend gender-based discrimination making claims that they are innate differences. For example, men are more logical than women that makes them suited for a variety of jobs. They claim that it’s just “simply biology”. But if we were really to talk about discrimination based on biology nothing threatens a woman’s employment and economic stability more than their status of pregnancy. Mere knowledge of pregnancy can make the employer change the decision of hiring women. These employers don’t see mothers or pregnant women as a long-term asset for the company and therefore, they keep them from getting an opportunity of well-deserved jobs.
So, what is pregnancy discrimination?
It is a kind of employment discrimination where a woman is fired, not hired, demoted, or any other sort of behaviour discrimination at work because of her pregnancy or intention to have kids. In 1979 an international treaty was adopted by the UN ‘Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women’. It prohibits any kind of discrimination based on maternity or pregnancy. It gives the right to maternity leave and ensures other social benefits.
Though pregnancy discrimination is illegal in most countries, the statistics are quite alarming. The Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills (DBIS) along with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (govt. of UK) conducted a research program to understand the prevalence of pregnancy discrimination. They also looked into the nature of the advantages and disadvantages of pregnancy discrimination in the workplace.
The result of the report is based on interviews conducted with about 3,034 employees and 3,254 mothers. The survey records their experience regarding maternity leave, mothers joining back work after a leave, and managing pregnancy. It was a vast report which explored many aspects like availability of advice, employers’ attitude, awareness, practices taken up for promotion, breastfeeding in the workplace, etc. Therefore this report becomes really important as it has taken most of the qualitative aspects. These are its main findings:
- About, 3 out of 4 mothers (77%) said that they had a negative experience during their pregnancy or on/after their maternity leave. If this is scaled up to the general population, it implies around 390,000 mothers face a similar kind of discrimination.
- About 1 in 9 mothers (11%) felt that they were forced to leave their jobs. 1% were dismissed, they were made redundant (1%), or they were treated so poorly that they had to leave (9%). If this is scaled up to the general population it means it is about 54,000 mothers.
- About 20% of the women (one in five mothers) said that they faced harassment or negative comments related to their pregnancy or about flexible working from their colleague/employer. This is about 100,000 mothers per year.
- About 25 mothers or 4% left their jobs for not being tackled (safety issue). This is about 21,000 mothers a year.
- About 51% of mothers said that their approval of flexible working requests led to negative consequences in terms of promotions. This is about 150,000 mothers per year.
Surprisingly, the number is so large, and yet most people feel that this is something normal. They don’t find anything wrong with this kind of behaviour. The employers’ record from this report shows how pregnancy discrimination is perceived. This is what the key findings of the research are:
- The majority of employers (84%) agreed that it was in their interest to support pregnant women on maternity leaves. The main reasons being staff retention and improving the morale of the employees. Most of them were also positive that it is easy to facilitate statutory rights.
- However, about 28% of the employers said that it was unreasonable to facilitate statutory rights. According to them the enhanced protection for mothers was either redundant or difficult to facilitate.
- 70% of employers said that women should declare upfront in interviews if she is pregnant or is planning to have children in the future.
- Even though the majority of employers believed that mothers and pregnant women are as committed to work as any other employee, some had negative attitudes towards it. 27% of them believed it was an unnecessary cost to bear. 17% truly believe that pregnant women are less interested in career progression than other employees. 7% did not think that they were as committed as other employees in the company.
This report is very important to understand that if this kind of discrimination is not perceived as a problem, how can one ask for their rights?
In most countries, pregnancy discrimination is considered to be illegal. Therefore it is important to mention some of the acts here that deal with it.
Know your rights:
Some examples of potentially illegal pregnancy discrimination are- during an interview if a woman is asked if she is pregnant and the agency asks her to interview for the next time;
If female employees tell her boss that she is pregnant and he fires her;
If a fast-food chain female worker asks if she can get permission to not lift the heavy objects during her pregnancy, but is denied;
If a pregnant co-worker needs to visit the doctor, but instead she is docked and given negative comments about her flexible timings, etc.
In the US, there is the Pregnancy Discrimination Act since 1978, as an amendment to the sex discrimination section of the Civil Rights Act. In apart from benefits like paid leave and forbidding any kind of discrimination based on pregnancy, it also reads any impairment caused by pregnancy under the American with Disability Act (pregnancy is considered to be a temporary disability). An employer is required to provide reasonable accommodation for it. Only women who work in an office of more than 15 employees can avail of it.
There is also another act in the US called FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) which allows both men and women to take paid leave for 12 weeks in case of a new-born baby or any family medical emergency. It is applicable for those men and women who have worked at least a year in a company with more than 50 employees.
In India, we have the Maternity Benefits Act amended recently in 2017 that applies to an establishment of 10 or more employees. It provides 26 weeks (previously 12 weeks) paid leave to a female employee who has worked for 80 days in the preceding 12 months with the employer. It also includes paid leave for other problems like miscarriage, medical termination, or pregnancy-related illness. In case she has 2 or more surviving children then she is entitled only to 12 weeks of paid leave.
In countries like Japan, Cambodia, Australia, Canada, Taiwan too they have their respective acts that make pregnancy discrimination illegal.
Though the times are changing many big companies do provide all these benefits to women, but women at lower-paying jobs still face a hard time. Especially those jobs which are physically demanding like nursing, firefighting, hotel services, etc. women from different ethnicities face even more pregnancy discrimination. For example, there are many case studies where black women were denied to get leaves due to the inherent biases that black people are more physically strong (stemming from the slavery days). The first big step here is to raise awareness about this kind of discrimination. It is important to make people understand that it is an issue. The policies should be more inclusive of women of all colours as well as men who want to take part in this.
Finally, we need to understand that the pregnancy of a woman, or her intentions to have or not have children in the future, is not a parameter to judge her skills as an employee. They should be given an equal chance to make progress in their careers too.
- Equality and Human Rights Commission- Pregnancy and Maternity related discrimination and disadvantages
- By the Numbers: Women Continue to Face Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace, An Analysis of U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Charges (Fiscal Years 2011 – 2015)- Oct 2016
- India’s new maternity benefit law, April 2017, Stephen Mathias
- Why pregnancy discrimination still matters- Liz Elting, Oct 2018, Forbes article
- US employment equal opportunity commission- Pregnancy Discrimination