Two major reports on gender inequality: call for action

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The EHRC have just released their research and recommendations on the huge incidence of pregnancy/maternity discrimination. This comes on the heels of the MPs’ report showing the significant intractable and insoluble pay gap. Both are a shocking indictment about how women are treated at work.

The pay gap: what MPs say

  • The 19.2% gap between men’s and women’s pay has barely improved in the past 4 years; this despite the government’s pledge to eradicate it within a generation;
  • A woman on average earns about 80p for every £1 earned by a man;
  • This denies the economy skills worth £36bn;
  • The recommendations include:
    • Making all jobs flexible from the outset, unless there is a strong business case against;
    • Fathers receiving get 3 months’ well-paid non-transferrable leave to support equal participation in childcare;
    • A ‘national pathways to work’ scheme to get women back into employment after time out;
    • Industrial strategies for low-paid jobs done mainly be women to increase productivity and drive up wages.

Pregnancy/maternity discrimination: The EHRC reporta snapshot

  • 84% of employers state it is in their interests to support pregnant women and those on maternity leave as it improves staff retention and morale;
  • Yet, 77% of working mothers report discriminatory or negative experience;
  • Only 28% of women raise discrimination concerns with their employer with 3% going through a grievance and 1% pursuing a claim;
  • Half of mothers described pregnancy having a negative impact on their career, work status or job security;
  • 70% of employers thought women should declare at recruitment stage if they were pregnant and 25% thought it was reasonable to question women of childbearing age about their plans to have children;
  • Recommendations include:
    • Action to prevent employers asking, at recruitment stage, about a woman’s pregnancy or intention to have children;
    • A collective insurance scheme to support small employers to provide enhanced pay and cover for maternity leave;
    • Ensuring tribunal fees are not a barrier to accessing justice for pregnant women and new mothers;
    • Considering increasing from 3-6 months the time limit for a woman to bring a tribunal case involving pregnancy and maternity discrimination;
    • Joint communications campaign to drive behavioural change about the economic benefits of retaining new mothers;
    • Improving advice and information for employers and employees.

Will the recommendations work?

54,000 women lose their jobs every year because of pregnancy or maternity – nearly twice the number 10 years ago (as found by the EOC Formal Investigation). Yet there are no substantive recommendations to deal with this. Yes, it is shocking that most employers want to ask questions about whether a woman has or intends to have children – the only reason must be that they will not employ them if the answer is ‘YES’.   BUT, the key is to stop women being dismissed and having to look for a new job when pregnant.

Our experience at YESS, acting for many pregnant women and new mothers, is that most pregnant women know they are unlikely to find a new job when pregnant and don’t bother applying. They may get a good exit package for their job loss but their career often suffers. They are then gagged from talking about their experience. As a result, there is no disincentive for the employer to dismiss the next pregnant woman. The problem is hidden.

The vast majority of new mothers do not want to go anywhere near a tribunal because they know making a claim is uncertain, costly, stressful, time consuming and career damaging. Looking after a young baby is challenging enough. Of course tribunal fees are too high and time limits too short but the EHRC recommendations will do little to tackle the real problem, which is that what women need is protection and security in their job when pregnant and on maternity leave.

The gender pay gap is often related to maternity discrimination. Women often lose their jobs or miss out on promotion and pay rises when pregnant or on leave. Often the price of flexible working is a lower status, lower paid job.

An effective measure would be to prohibit the dismissal of women or new mothers unless there are exceptional circumstances or where approved by an independent body such as ACAS. Employers want to keep employees who are pregnant or on maternity leave. Women want to keep their jobs and don’t want to be applying for new ones. So, a ban on dismissal is good for at least 84% of employers and all employees. It is good for the economy, working families and gender equality. It’s good for those employers who comply with the law. There is a similar scheme in Germany. What’s to lose?

The government response to the EHRC report is to commit to enabling pregnant women and new mothers to participate fully if they choose to and giving employers access to the widest possible pool of talent. They say ‘This is not only the right thing to do for families and society as a whole; it’s important for our future prosperity and economy’. Of course.

We now need some action which includes a proper deterrent for the minority of rogue employers who repeatedly flout the law by paying women less than men and side-lining or dismissing working mothers.

Camilla Palmer QC (hon) YESS

Life's too short to litigate