Jayne Harrison is Partner and Head of Employment Law at Richard Nelson LLP
According to Workplace Insight, there has been a 70 per cent increase since 2018 in women being fired on maternity leave and the use of gagging orders following maternity-related disputes.
Whilst this is not entirely reflective of every woman’s experience when returning to work, this stat would not come as much of a surprise for some mothers. A lot of change can happen to an organisation in the 52 weeks whilst you’re away. Often the changes in treatment that you experience as a new mother in the workplace are so subtle that you might be worried about addressing it in the first place.
But that does not mean that this treatment is valid. The discrimination that many women face as a new mother is so serious that they might find themselves facing redundancy or demotion.
This article sheds some much-needed light on what rights mums have at work:
When you’re expecting
Pregnancy and maternity discrimination is where a woman has been treated unfavourably due to her pregnancy, or because she intends to or has taken maternity leave. It is important to note that women are protected against pregnancy discrimination once their employer is aware that she is pregnant. However, you still have the right to discuss this with your employer in your own time. Examples of unfavourable and detrimental treatment can include, but are not restricted to:
- Redundancy or dismissal
- Preventing women from training or promotion opportunities
- Reduction of pay and hours
- Pressure to resign
- Refusal to carry out a risk assessment in the workplace where health and safety risks are present
Women who are expecting are well within their right to request their employer to make allowances for sickness or health and safety issues during their pregnancy – such as being able to sit down more if your job requires you to stand. It is recommended to notify your employer in writing that you are pregnant so that they can take reasonable action to remove or prevent exposure to risks that could harm you or your baby. If you are still worried after letting your employer know that you are pregnant, women should discuss the issue with their midwives or GPs and ask for a letter for proof of legitimate concerns.
When you return
New legislation initiated by the Chair of the Commons Women and Equalities Committee proposes that mums who return to work will be protected from redundancy for sixth months after maternity leave. This legislation brings to light the real issues that some mothers face being sidelined in the workplace. As the bill is currently in its second reading at the time of writing this article, we can hope that this legislation will be brought to reality to protect women from redundancy during pregnancy, maternity leave and for sixth months after the end of pregnancy.
Has your employer prevented you from returning to your original role, prior to maternity leave, and not offered you a suitable alternative job? If you have been dismissed or made redundant because of changes to your job during leave, or for issues related, it is advised to get legal advice straight away as you may have a claim for maternity discrimination or unfair dismissal.
If you are a new mother that is returning to work whilst still breastfeeding, it is important to remember what is mentioned above. Your employer must take action to avoid risks to yours or your baby’s health. Therefore, they should make reasonable alterations to your conditions at work, such as flexible working hours and allowing more breaks to express milk.
If you believe that you are experiencing discrimination as a result of being pregnant, on maternity leave or returning to work as a new mother, do not endure it and assume that this is something that mothers have to go through. At first, new mums should try to resolve any issues amicably with their employer or HR department. This can be a distressing experience but you should try to discuss matters constructively and focus on finding a solution.
If amicable discussion cannot be achieved, then new mums should try to get legal advice as soon as possible. Employment tribunals usually require that they receive a claim within three months from the date of the issue you are complaining about, so it is important to act promptly.