Discriminating against pregnant women is not just wrong, it’s foolish | Rowan Davies

Women are still hit by the motherhood penalty at work, with lower wages and stalled careers. If men had equal paternity rights this would change

“Pregnancy discrimination” is a deceptive term; while most people would agree that discriminatory practices in recruitment are A Bad Thing, the pregnancy variety sounds like a discrete, time-limited phenomenon. Morally indefensible, yes; against the law, certainly; but no longer problematic once the baby has been born. So it’s worth reminding ourselves of the lifelong consequences that result from the intersection of motherhood with employment. Three-quarters of working mothers say they have experienced discrimination in the workplace. The “motherhood penalty” – the pay and seniority hit observable over a mother’s working lifetime – was described by the IFS in 2016 as "a gradual but continual rise in the wage gap … by the time the first child is aged 12, women’s hourly wages are a third below men’s.”

The effects extend well beyond women’s working years: only 37% of women were contributing to personal pensions in 2013-14, compared to 63% of men, and women are less likely to qualify for a full state pension because of child-rearing gaps in their national insurance payments. Over decades, all of this adds up to stalled careers and old-age poverty. There’s a cost to the economy, too: McKinsey research in 2016 suggested that eliminating work-related gender pay gaps could add £150bn to annual UK GDP by 2025.

There are those who will suggest that this is all the result of women’s individual choices to have children. (Let’s leave aside, for now, the observation that men choose parenthood, too.) What this week’s research by the EHRC shows is that while the choice to flush your contraceptive pills down the loo might be free, discrimination is something that’s imposed on you. A third of “senior decision-makers” in private companies thought it was reasonable to ask a female candidate about her future plans regarding children; 44% of employers thought that a woman who had more than one pregnancy while remaining in post could be “a burden”. Mumsnet research in 2016 found that among survey respondents who were employers or involved in recruitment, 27% said they had heard someone responsible for recruitment saying that they would always choose a male candidate over a female candidate if they were equally capable, and 31% had heard someone responsible for recruitment expressing the view that employing women was an extra hassle. Many women confirmed that they had been asked at interview to disclose information that the Equalities Act 2010 clearly states employers must not ask for, including whether they had children (34%), whether they planned to have children (18%), their marital status or sexuality (22%), and whether they had caring responsibilities (10%).

It’s not unreasonable for employers to have noticed that pregnancy and maternity comes with significant health impacts for many women. Some sail through the months of hormonal uproar with utmost serenity, but many do not. The easiest births can take some weeks to recover from, and the most difficult can take years. The postnatal months can be blissful or appalling, or both. Tiny babies are fabulously demanding, and their parents are often shattered. All of this requires a measure of understanding from employers. Even organisations with exemplary policies and slick HR departments can find themselves under pressure if their star performer suddenly needs six weeks off because she can’t stop vomiting; tiny startups and businesses on tight margins aren’t necessarily lying when they report finding some of this quite onerous.

But that, quite literally, is life. Employees – and even, when you think about it, bosses – are a seething mass of health conditions and risks, personal commitments and undeclared interests. The list of potential employees who have no caring responsibilities, no illnesses, no long-term conditions, no lifestyle risks, no distractingly difficult personal circumstances and no potential reproductive capacity is short indeed. As an employer, you can regard this with distaste or you can work with the human race, rather than against it. There is some baffling short-termism on display among the EHRC survey’s respondents: parents are inclined by circumstance, responsibilities and mortgages to do well at work and keep employers happy. Research by Working Families in 2016 found that both fathers and mothers in full-time employment worked considerably more than their contracted hours.

While Unison overturning employment tribunal fees is a significant (and under-celebrated) victory, the best long-term remedy for pregnancy and maternity discrimination will be for fathers to take on a full share of child-rearing responsibilities. (UK fathers, according to Working Families, work some of the longest hours in Europe, and so cannot be fairly said to be in clover themselves.) Millennial dads are showing promising signs of wanting to be fully involved in their children’s babyhoods, and forward-thinking employers are rushing to meet them – some with generous offers of paternity pay that make shared parental leave a real possibility. When the commitment to childcare is pooled, perhaps recruiters will look across the conference table and confine themselves to the only question that actually matters: “Will you be great at this job?”

• Rowan Davies is head of policy and campaigns at Mumsnet


Rowan Davies

The GuardianTramp

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