£1 million to investigate pregnancy discrimination: a welcome move for women’s rights, but urgent action needed

This is a blog I wrote for Maternity Action and originally appeared on the F-Word.

pregnant womanMaternity rights organisations are celebrating this week at the news that the government will fund a £1 million research programme into pregnancy discrimination. The last investigation was published in 2006 and since 2008 we have been calling for further research.

Maria Miller MP, Minister for Women and Equalities announced the news on Monday, breaking the Coalition’s silence on the issue. The 2006 investigation by the Equal Opportunities Commission(EOC) found that half of all pregnant women in the workforce experienced discrimination and around 30,000 women a year were forced out of their jobs simply for being pregnant or taking maternity leave.

Since the economic downturn began, pregnant women and new mothers have faced an increasingly difficult time in the workplace and at Maternity Action we have seen a startling increase in calls to our advice line and downloads of ouradvice sheets. The number of women losing their jobs is likely to have doubled over the recession, but we need this research to investigate the nature and incidence of this discrimination.

Most women who lose their jobs are not fired but are treated so badly that they feel they have no choice but to leave:

“He made my life intolerable… saying I wasn’t doing my job properly any more … In the end, it got so bad, he just kept complaining about my work, and he’d never said anything about it before, and saying I wasn’t pulling my weight in the office.” (Davis et al, 2005)

Pregnancy discrimination has far reaching implications. Those women who lose their jobs miss out on £12m a year in Statutory Maternity Pay and return to hourly earnings 5% lower than before. Stress and poverty during a pregnancy can have severe impacts on the mother and the well-being of the child, being linked to premature births and ongoing health complications with the baby.

“I went to the council offices…and said ‘Oh my god, I’m pregnant and I’ve just been fired’. Reality hit. My rent was £250 a week, which I could very easily afford last week. I was so completely distraught… saying I should have an abortion, I can’t afford this child.” (Davis et al, 2005)

The problem here is not lack of legislation – the principles of non-discrimination were established decades ago – it is non-compliance by businesses. Non-compliance comes from both savvy bosses flouting the rules but also from a shocking lack of knowledge by both women and their employers of maternity rights. When asked, only 8% of HR professionals knew health and safety obligations and only 54% of employees knew their rights. Read more

Is it time for a new debate about gender equality?

I’m delighted to have my piece on this issue published on the Society Women at the topCentral blog at the University of Essex. It is reproduced here:

‘Check your privilege’ is a phrase that increasingly crops up in equality debates and no more so than in feminism. It aims to hold to account the white, educated middle class women who spearhead the feminist movement, asking them to consider their narrow breadth of experience before speaking on behalf of ‘all women’. It has been a divisive concept, but the idea that feminism is only for the elite is nothing new.

A report from Institute for Public Policy Research  (IPPR) suggests that recent feminist campaigns are on the wrong track and the movement should, in essence, ‘check its privilege’ in order to change things for the many rather than the few.

The report, Great Expectations – Exploring the Promise of Gender Equality argues that a focus on ‘women at the top’ – that is to improve female representation in politics and on corporate boards – will not produce the changes needed to empower all women. Campaigns such as the Fawcett Society’s ‘Women and Power’ focus on getting already educated and privileged women into powerful positions rather than transforming the economic and social landscape that keeps most other women lagging behind.

Flexibility should occur at the bottom as well at the top of the labour market and we should aim to raise the status and pay of the jobs that women do, especially care work.

The report combines statistical analysis of the National Child Development Study, the British Cohort Study and Understanding Society with interviews of women in 50 families to examine progress on women’s equality across three generations.

Through this, the researchers examine the barriers to equality that women in the UK still face and conclude that legislation can only go so far. Women have gained legal equality in most areas and whilst this has helped reduce discrimination in the workplace, for example, there are other hurdles it won’t address.

Research released in July from the Economic and Social Research Council concluded that despite the increase in female breadwinners, women still do most of the housework and IPPR’s own research discovered that the burden of children and the elderly is still very much the female domain.

How fairly care work is organised is heavily correlated with women and men’s educational and class background. The more educated a woman is, the longer she waits to have children, which tends to result in a more equitable split of housework and childcare. Fathers too are increasingly spending more time with their children but these fathers are also more highly educated.

Listen to a podcast about the research with Glenn Gottfried, IPPR

Little has changed for women with no higher education or who work in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs. These women tend to have children earlier, in their teens and twenties, but the impact this has on their potential earnings is actually worse than for the previous generation of women. Those born in 1958 who had children early would expect to earn 17% less than women without children. For those born in 1970. the figure is 20%. Read more