Protesters march along Whitehall to protest about the employment law surrounding women and pregnancy.
Protesters march to Whitehall to protest over employment law: two-fifths of employers said pregnancy in the workplace presented them with 'an unnecessary cost burden'

More than a third of private sector employers in the UK believe it is acceptable to ask female job candidates about their plans to have children, even though the practice has been illegal since 1975.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission, the public body charged with enforcing laws that protect people’s rights, released figures on Monday from a survey by pollster YouGov of managers’ attitudes towards pregnancy and maternity discrimination. The poll of 1,106 business decision makers, conducted last autumn, suggested many employers were “living in the dark ages”, the commission said.

“We should all know very well that it is against the law not to appoint a woman because she is pregnant or might become pregnant. Yet we also know women routinely get asked questions around family planning in interviews,” said Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the EHRC.

“It’s clear that many employers need more support to better understand the basics of discrimination law and the rights of pregnant women and new mothers.”

Women have been protected by law from discrimination at work because of pregnancy or maternity for more than 40 years. But research by the business department and EHRC in 2015 found the number of women reporting this kind of discrimination increased between 2005 and 2015. That led to renewed calls for the government to do more to help employers understand their responsibilities and protect pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace.

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The latest survey just published by the EHRC suggests a significant minority of employers still view pregnant women and new mothers negatively. Two-fifths of employers said pregnancy in the workplace puts “an unnecessary cost burden” on the organisation.

Just over half of employers said that other employees within their company feel resentful towards women who are pregnant or on maternity leave.

The survey found more negative attitudes towards pregnant women and new mothers among small and medium-sized employers (SME) — those with fewer than 250 employees — than large employers. Just over a third of large employers thought it was reasonable to ask women if they had young children during the recruitment process, compared with more than half of SMEs.

Male respondents were also more likely to exhibit negative attitudes. For example, 35 per cent of male respondents said pregnant women and new mothers were generally less interested in their career than their colleagues, compared with 22 per cent of female respondents.

Older respondents were also more likely to report negative attitudes than younger managers, with those aged 35 to 44 being the least likely to display a discriminatory attitude. Half of managers aged 55 and over thought women who had more than one pregnancy while in the same job “can be a burden to their team”, compared with 38 per cent of managers aged 35 to 44.

Despite the prevalence of a variety of beliefs that are in breach of equalities legislation, 76 per cent of employers agreed with the premise that “supporting pregnant women and those on maternity leave is in the best interests of the organisation”.

“There are still far too many employers who don’t understand or respect employment law as it relates to pregnant women and new mothers,” said Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, the professional body for human resources and people development. “Investment in manager capability is essential to challenge unlawful, short-sighted and unethical practice.”

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