WANTED: ministerial action to end pregnancy and maternity discrimination at work

By Ros Bragg, Director of Maternity Action on 13 April 2021

In 2016, the Government commissioned research by the Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and found disturbing high levels of pregnancy and maternity discrimination in British workplaces: 78 per cent of pregnant women and new mothers experience some form of discrimination or negative treatment at work, and 11 per cent – some 50,000 a year – are forced out of their job. That is a sports stadium of pregnant women and new mothers forced out of work, every year. In the 21st Century, this should not be happening.

Shockingly, ministers have yet to take any real action to address the EHRC’s research findings and recommendations. The Government’s persistent failure to pre-empt the gendered impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and take preventative or remedial action has been well documented, in reports by the Petitions Committee of MPs in July last year, and the Women & Equalities Committee in February.

This matters to the midwifery profession, as 99 per cent of midwives are women. Staff shortages and ever-increasing workloads – especially during the pandemic – have left many feeling that they don't have the time to provide the right quality of care to their patients. An RCM survey carried out in 2020 found that 83 per cent of midwives do not believe their NHS Trust or Board has enough staff to operate a safe service, and that can only serve to put women at greater risk of adverse treatment by their employer.

In July 2019, the Government pledged to “establish a Taskforce of employer and family representative groups” to “develop an action plan on what steps Government and other organisations can take to make it easier for pregnant women and new mothers to stay in work”. Unfortunately, we are still waiting. Had this Taskforce been up and running before the onset of COVID-19, some of the gendered impact of the pandemic might well have been avoided.

However, business minister Paul Scully has indicated to MPs that the Government remains committed to establishing the Taskforce, and that the first meeting will be held “shortly”. So the RCM has joined with Maternity Action and 20 other women’s organisations, advice groups and trade unions – including the Fawcett Society, Maternity Action, NCT, the TUC, UNISON, Usdaw, and the Women's Budget Group – to publish an Action Plan  setting out an agenda of policy reform, for urgent consideration by the Taskforce.

The much-needed policy reforms highlighted by the Action Plan include: strengthening redundancy protection for pregnant women and new mothers; enabling more equal parenting by scrapping and replacing Shared Parental Leave; increasing the basic rate of statutory maternity and parental pay; overhauling health and safety protections; and making ‘flexible working’ work for everyone.