Pregnancy discrimination? Or ‘return to work’ discrimination? Or both?

We are all familiar with the stories that regularly hit the headlines of those employers who have been taken to court over treating pregnant employees unfairly.  However, how much exposure is there around the unfair treatment of those returning from family-related leave?

Last month, HR Grapevine reported the survey results that 49% of mums think employers discriminate against working mothers.

We regularly hear about nightmarish yet very real return to work scenarios:

  • applying for jobs which are ultimately given to less experienced, but full-time non-parent candidates
  • returning to a role which has reduced exposure, with an emphasis on more routine or problematic issues
  • projects involving travel given to others on the assumption new parents will not be able to/want to travel
  • more challenging, ‘exciting’ jobs given to others
  • a desk move to the furthest side of the office
  • change to reporting lines to someone who used to be your junior or at the same level
  • performance reviews and objective-setting not done as vigorously as before
  • ‘jokes’ made about ‘having a half-day’ when you leave at 5pm to collect from childcare
  • assumptions that you are no longer interested in applying for the next promotion

These scenarios happen week in, week out, across all sectors in all locations.  Most of them are considered the ‘grey areas’ and nearly all of them go officially unreported because they are ‘unproven’ or simply just tolerated by individuals who just want to settle back into work without ‘making a fuss’.

Some employers have now become so wary of saying the wrong thing to a pregnant woman at work, that in many cases, issues are completely avoided and the management of impending leave is completely brushed aside.  In other cases, this fear of saying or doing the wrong thing leads to super levels of support – but how often does this support continue to the return, when confidence levels of returners are at their lowest?

The Citizens Advice clearly stipulates that during your pregnancy and maternity leave, you are protected by the 2010 Equality Act.  However, ‘the protected period ends when your maternity leave ends or when you return to work, if this is earlier.’

During the return period, therefore, our returners from leave are potentially exposed.  We all need to do more to recognise just how important the returning period is in ensuring employees are supported, happy and productive in their roles.   Whilst pregnancy at work lasts a matter of months, the period of return spans over years.

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