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It’s not every day you see hundreds of bandaged mummies wandering the streets of London. But on October 31 London’s Parliament Square was full of people dressed that way.
These weren’t Halloween revellers or Hollywood actors appearing in the latest blockbuster. They were ordinary men and women, marching together. But the stories they told were more disturbing than their fake blood-stained outfits.
Some were mothers who had been fired from their jobs for, as they put it, “daring to have children”. Others were women who had been set impossible targets on returning to work in the hope that they would leave quietly. One, still evidently traumatised, said she had her contract terminated the day after she told her employer she was pregnant.
I didn’t think this kind of thing happened nowadays. Employers, I thought, cannot simply make a woman redundant while she is on maternity leave, can they? Maybe not legally, but some certainly still try; while others might change the job role so that new mothers go back to work only to find that they end up in a new and unwelcome position (albeit one that pays the same).
To mark Halloween, the marchers dressed as mummies to (they said) reflect the archaic legislation that has “allowed workplaces to discriminate” against working parents. Improved employment terms and subsidised childcare arrangements were among their demands.
Kate, from London, said she had been made redundant without any consultation while on maternity leave. “I was the only part-time worker at my level, and the only person at my level to be affected. Being made redundant just 12 days after the birth of my daughter, and confined to bed rest on doctors’ orders, I couldn’t even dress myself, let alone think about taking my employer to a tribunal,” she says.
There is evidence that maternity and pregnancy discrimination has increased over the past decade. The Equality and Human Rights Commission found that 54,000 women a year lose their jobs as a direct consequence of maternity or pregnancy discrimination and 77 per cent of working mums endure negative or discriminatory treatment at work.
Since the report was commissioned — more than 18 months ago — a further 84,000 women have lost their jobs and the government has taken no decisive action to prevent this continuing. When I expressed surprise at this I was told by one campaigner that becoming a mother is the “single most damaging thing you can do to your career”.
Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies this year found the wage gap between men and women was smaller when women are young, but opens up after the birth of a woman’s first baby. Time taken off and part-time working could mean mothers miss out on promotions, and effectively incur a wage penalty.
Some countries handle this better than others. In Germany, a ban prevents redundancies for pregnant employees except in rare cases, such as gross misconduct or the employer getting into financial difficulties.
We should adopt the same attitudes here. This kind of discrimination doesn’t just harm families, blight mothers’ career opportunities and cost the state money. It also damages the companies that allow employees to be discriminated against in this way.
Corporate bad behaviour over this issue is set to come under more scrutiny, at least: new rules surrounding business transparency on gender pay means it will be much harder for companies to conceal outdated practices or their ramifications for big pay disparities between the sexes. The latest figures — which revealed that the UK’s gender pay gap has increased quicker than anywhere else in Europe — show there is much work to be done.
The organisation behind the March of the Mummies demonstration is an international pressure group, Pregnant Then Screwed, which supports women who have suffered pregnancy or maternity discrimination. It is calling for subsidised childcare from six months old, rather than three years old; wants the self-employed to be given statutory shared parental leave; and for fathers to have improved paternity leave.
Other demands were that the time limit for bringing a claim against an employer should be raised from three months to six for pregnant and post-partum women. This sounds about right to me. For most new mothers (including me when I had my son) it can be a challenge to get dressed, let alone put together a case for a tribunal.
I am lucky to have a supportive work environment, which allowed me to return, part-time, to a job I love, but I am well aware that pregnancy and maternity discrimination is still alive and well.
Businesses that do not change with the times and embrace flexible working are setting themselves up to fail. Research from the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, recently found 73 per cent of employers who offer flexible working report a positive impact on staff motivation and engagement.
Other countries have shown that by adapting legislation to encourage equality in the home you can reduce discrimination and decrease the gender pay gap. Add to this, subsidised childcare — the UK has some of the most expensive childcare in the world — and we might just start on the long road to alleviating some of the difficulties faced by mothers returning to work.
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