Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)
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Three in four working mothers say they’ve experienced pregnancy and maternity discrimination

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is calling for the Government to take urgent action as new research suggests more than three quarters of pregnant women and new mothers, the equivalent of 390,000 women, experience negative and potentially discriminatory treatment at work each year.

The Commission has published wide-ranging proposals for change, including ensuring women have proper access to legal redress, as it publishes its final research report today on experiences of pregnancy and maternity discrimination at work. 

The comprehensive research, carried out in partnership with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, shows despite 77% of working mothers reporting potentially discriminatory or negative experiences, only around a quarter (28%) raised the issue with their employer, only 3% went through their employer’s internal grievance procedure, and less than 1% pursued a claim to the employment tribunal.  

The survey of more than 3,000 mothers and 3,000 employers shows a range of reasons for this including the financial cost of pursuing a claim, fear of negative repercussions at work, lack of information about their rights, and stress and tiredness. Since the introduction in 2013 of tribunal fees of up to £1,200, the number of sex discrimination cases has dropped by 76% and pregnancy-related cases fell by 50%1. 

The research also reveals the majority of employers (70%) thought a woman should declare at recruitment stage if they were pregnant, and a quarter thought that it was reasonable to question women of childbearing age at interview about their plans to have children. In addition to this, three in four (77%) mothers that were unsuccessful in their job interviews undertaken while pregnant (where the employer had known about their pregnancy) felt it had affected their chances of success.

The Commission is calling for the Government to:

  • take more effective steps to prevent employers asking during the recruitment process about a woman’s pregnancy or her intention to have children;
  • explore the feasibility of a collective insurance scheme to support small and medium sized employers to provide enhanced pay and cover for maternity leave, based on a successful model used in Denmark;
  • make changes to the employment tribunal fee system to ensure that fees are not a barrier to accessing justice for pregnant women and new mothers;
  • consider increasing from three to six months the time limit for a woman to bring an employment tribunal case involving pregnancy and maternity discrimination.​

While many employers value, and want to retain, the talent, skills and drive women contribute that make businesses productive, the research suggests that this does not always translate into positive experiences at work for pregnant women and new mothers.  

In a drive to improve practice and prevent discrimination taking place, the Commission is also making a number of recommendations to improve leadership, management practice, information, and health and safety among employers.

These include;

  • A joint communications campaign between Government, the Commission and business leaders to drive attitudinal and behavioural change by promoting the economic benefits of unlocking and retaining the talent of pregnant women and new mothers;
  • Improving the advice and information available to help employers and employees understand their rights and obligations; and
  • Improving health and safety management in the workplace so women are not forced to choose between their job and their health or the health of their unborn child. ​

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

“We simply cannot ignore the true scale of the hidden discrimination that working mothers face. This is unacceptable in modern Britain, and urgent action is needed to ensure women are able to challenge discrimination and unfairness. This is why we are calling on Government to look at the barriers working pregnant women and mothers face in accessing justice.

“We want to make workplaces fairer for everyone and get rid of outdated practices like asking women during job interviews whether they intend to have children. For businesses to thrive, they need to harness the talents, skills and experience of all employees. We are calling on employers, regulatory bodies and the voluntary sector to make vital changes needed to improve the lived experiences of British workplaces so they are the best they can be for everyone.”

Dianah Worman OBE, Diversity Adviser at the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, commented:

“The findings of this rigorous research are shocking and should send alarm bells ringing across the business world. It shows many employers need to rethink how they recruit, retain and develop female talent. Besides the damage it causes to individuals, discrimination on this scale harms the UK economy which will only be able to reach its potential when it builds and sustains opportunities and choice for women to be as economically active as men.

“Lazy management which both overtly and covertly stops this from happening by imposing a baby penalty against pregnant women and those returning to work after they have had children is short-sighted and regressive. The findings are a wake-up call for UK management to pull its socks up and lose no time in doing so. Social expectations regarding the importance of diversity and inclusion are increasing and employers need to catch up with this reality. It is important that these findings help trigger action to turn the tide on the bad practices they expose.”

Women and Equalities Committee Chair Maria Miller said:

“This report provides hard evidence that there is widespread and worrying discrimination against women during pregnancy and when they return to work from maternity leave. This is despite the legal protections that have been in place for the past 30 years. My Committee is very concerned by these findings and is launching an inquiry to follow up on the report and recommendations.”

The new findings, from the final phase of the Commission’s research, also show; 

  • Three quarters of the mothers who felt forced to leave their jobs each reported more than 10 different types of negative experiences;
  • Half of mothers described a negative impact on their career, work status or job security, including not being informed about promotion opportunities, being denied training opportunities, being threatened with dismissal or put being under pressure to hand in their notice which, if scaled up to the general population, could affect 210,000 mothers a year;
  • 4% of mothers reported they left their job as a result of health and safety risks which were not resolved; if scaled up to the general population this could affect 21,000 mothers a year;
  • 67% of employers had not sought information or guidance on employment issues relating to pregnancy and maternity and over half (55%) provided no guidelines, training or support to managers on managing pregnancy and maternity; and  
  • Only 4% of employers had sought information on issues such as time off for antenatal appointments or dealing with flexible working requests. However, 10% of the mothers surveyed experienced problems when they needed time off for antenatal appointments and 51% experienced negative consequences after approval of a flexible working request.  

Notes to Editors

For more information on the #worksforme campaign visit: www.equalityhumanrights.com/worksforme

For more press information and interviews contact the Commission’s media office on 0161 829 8102, out of office hours 07767 272 818.

Read the full research reports 
Read the full recommendations report 

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.

Equality Act 2010

Discrimination at work 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 on the person covering her maternity leave instead; and

Refusing a pregnant employee reasonable time off for ante-natal appointments.

Case study quotes from research interviews

Quotes from mothers;

Health and safety risks:

 “I remember once [my supervisor] asked me to bring some milk up from the fridges downstairs and it was heavy, even if you weren’t pregnant. I said ‘No, I said I can’t I’m seven months pregnant. I’ll hurt myself’, and she said ‘Look you’re only pregnant, you’re not poorly’,”.

Sales assistant for coffee shop chain, earning £5,000–£9,999 a year, aged 20–24

Risk to health:

“There was no risk assessment done or anything like that. I was still required to move things that I probably shouldn’t have moved or lifted or whatever. I just kind of got on with it. I know I was stupid…I was sent to another store to help out to run that store because one of the managers was off. I actually ended up doing too much [lifting] and ended up having a trip to the hospital because I really thought something was wrong”.

Retail supervisor, earning £10,000–£19,999 a year, aged 20–24

Effect of external advice:

 “It was only when I said, “Well no, I’m going to take this further, I’m going to go to Citizens Advice, I’m going to put a complaint in.”, that they said, “Right OK then, we’ll average out your hours and we will give you your maternity leave’”.

Sales assistant for coffee shop chain, earning £5,000–£9,999 a year, aged 20–24

Negative attitudes:

“They had not heard of [hyperemesis gravidarum] before. Eventually one of the senior managers turned round and said, because I think Kate [Middleton] was pregnant then or there was something in the newspaper about it and he was, ‘You’ve got that’ and the penny finally dropped that it wasn’t me just skiving off or trying to make things difficult.”

Regional manager for publishing company, earning £30,000 – £39,999 a year, aged 30–34

Positive experience:

 “They saw me as a person, as more than just a professional and yet still professional. There was never any suggestion that I would be any less capable when I was pre having a baby, when I was pregnant or afterwards.

I still love my work and I still have a joyful time at home with my little girl! And I feel very privileged in that because the majority of my female friends aren’t in that position. It’s because of the treatment, about the way I was treated and the way I’ve been encouraged professionally, since coming back, that it made motherhood and professional life balance perfectly together…” 

Teacher earning £30-39k aged 30-34

Quotes from employers:

Positive attitudes:

“It takes a long time to train someone up and understand how the whole thing fits together, so to lose someone is a pain in the neck – you’d rather retain them.

We try to be flexible . . . and create contracts that will work for people when they’ve had children. It definitely helps with retention . . . They know they’ll be listened to if they want to adjust their contract, we’ll do our best to do that.”

250+ employees, third sector, Arts Culture and Leisure

Attitudes to flexible working:

“There may be [negative comments] regarding working from home…some regard it as a day off a week.”

50-99 employees, private sector, Finance

Attitudes to training:

“[Have they had any training?] No. I had some in my previous job and probably I’m the one that actually needs it. I could probably do with a brush up, but it’s not high up on my list of training needs.”

5-9 employees, third sector, Arts, Culture and Leisure

Attitudes to recruitment:

“I have had once instance where an employee started and then announced they were pregnant a couple of months later. I felt a bit angry, because I was going to have to do it [recruitment] again. I just felt a bit time-wasting, having spent all that time choosing someone.”

100-249 employees, private sector, Hotels and Restaurants

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