Avoiding discrimination | Equality watchdog advises employers on updated pregnancy and maternity protections in the workplace

Equality watchdog advises employers on updated pregnancy and maternity protections in the workplace

Employers have been issued new guidance on their responsibilities to employees who are pregnant and/or on maternity leave, by the UK's equality watchdog.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has published an updated toolkit to provide employers with clear advice on what they should do to prevent pregnancy and maternity discrimination at work.

The toolkit, which reflects changes to the law which have come into effect this month, gives detailed guidance on what action employers must take before, during and after their staff take maternity leave, to ensure they are protected from discrimination.

The toolkit sets out the changes employers will have to make, which include:

  • Extending protection from redundancy to include pregnant women and those on maternity, adoption and shared parental leave.

  • Offering suitable alternative employment to pregnant women and those on maternity, adoption and shared parental leave in a redundancy situation, including having priority over other employees regarding alternative roles.

  • Providing the right to request flexible working from the first day of employment.

  • Increasing flexibility in how paternity leave can be taken.

The EHRC has urged employers to review the advice and ensure their policies are fully compliant with the law, so pregnant staff, and staff taking parental leave, receive the full protections they are entitled to.

Baroness Kishwer Falkner, Chairwoman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission said: “As Britain’s equality watchdog, we have a duty to explain the law around pregnancy and maternity rights to employers, employees and the public.

“An employer understanding their legal duties is the foundation of equality in the workplace. Our revised toolkit explains those legal obligations and provides employers with practical advice on how they can best support pregnant women at work and ensure those staff taking parental leave are not discriminated against.”

What the law says

In the UK, there is legislation to some extent to protect individuals during their pregnancy period.

The most common and implemented law is the Protected Period.

The Protected Period is under the Equality Act 2010. This period covers the start of when a woman’s pregnancy begins and ends. It also states that if the woman has the right to ordinary and additional maternity leave, the protected period will be at the end of the additional maternity leave period or (if earlier) when she returns to work after pregnancy.

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In February 2023, Parliament approved a Private Members’ Bill from Labour MP Dan Jarvis, which extended the legal rights of an employee from the moment they notify their employer that they’re pregnant, up to 18 months after they give birth.

The Barnsley Central MP said the proposal would help "tens of thousand of women pushed out of the workforce every year simply for being pregnant".

The bill, titled the Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Bill, received Royal Assent and is now an Act of Parliament.

Research reveals a worrying situation

While there are laws in the UK to protect pregnant employees, research reveals that maternity discrimination prevails in the UK.

More than one in four (26%) expectant mothers feel reluctant to share their pregnancy news due to fear of the stigma they may face from colleagues and managers, according to recent research.

And the study, from Culture Shift, showed that this jumped to almost half (46%) for those who had been in employment for less than six months when they fell pregnant.

The claims were based on mostly the following subject matters:

  • Sham redundancies

  • Offensive comments to pregnant employees

  • Failure to implement flexible working options

  • Being overlooked for promotion

Culture Shift also found that more than one in five (21%) know someone who has faced maternity discrimination at work, while one in eight (12%) have experienced maternity discrimination themselves.

Gemma McCall, the Co-Founder and CEO of Culture Shift, previously told HR Grapevine: “Society assumes all women will become mothers- and yet, we don’t like it when they get pregnant and we employ them.”

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McCall commented: “All of a sudden, this societal expectation we’ve been pushing onto them since birth becomes an inconvenience and so, it’s no surprise that one in four expectant mothers hide their pregnancy.”

Lead Evangelist EMEA of Snowflake, Eva Murray, added: “We face so many expectations, no matter how we decide to live our lives. I’ve heard a friend once question whether a colleague of his should be promoted given she wanted a family.”

The comments and research reveal a common theme against pregnant individuals which is that indeed maternity discrimination is present in many businesses and various industries.

Maternity discrimination is a reality and to state otherwise would be denying the truth of what pregnant women witness within their workforce.

It’s vital to recognise the troubles that pregnant individuals can already face. Don’t add or reinforce maternity discrimination against an employee.

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