Unequal impact? Coronavirus and the gendered economic impact Contents

5Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination

81.In this Chapter, we consider the issue of pregnancy and maternity discrimination prior and during the pandemic.

Pre-pandemic trends

82.Current legislative protections for pregnancy and maternity are set out across a number of legislative provisions.125 Despite legal protection, there has been evidence of widespread pregnancy and maternity discrimination. Research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) found that more than three quarters of women (77%) had had a negative or potentially discriminatory experience as a result of pregnancy or maternity; around one in nine mothers (11%) reported they felt forced to leave their job; 70% of employers felt that women should declare their pregnancy during recruitment, 25% that it was a reasonable to ask women about their plans to have children during recruitment and 27% that pregnancy was an unreasonable cost burden.126

83.In 2016, our predecessor Committee concluded: “shockingly, pregnant women and mothers report more discrimination and poor treatment at work now than they did a decade ago”.127

84.Yet the Government has again made little progress to stop discrimination.128 No legislation has been brought forward to meet the Government’s proposal to improve redundancy protection for pregnant women and mothers returning from maternity leave129 or to bring forward an Employment Bill to achieve said protection.130

Situation during the pandemic

85.A survey of 19,950 mothers and pregnant women undertaken by Pregnant then Screwed in July 2020131 confirmed the high levels of anxiety amongst pregnant women and mothers about redundancy. 15% of mothers had been made redundant or expected to be in the next six months; 10.5% of pregnant women, and 11.2% of those on maternity leave, were in the same position. A significant proportion of those made redundant, thought their pregnancy, maternity leave or motherhood was a factor.

86.The EHRC’s written evidence to the Committee’s ‘Unequal Impact’ umbrella inquiry132 described the reported instances of pregnancy and maternity discrimination as one of the “most urgent, immediate threats to equality” during the pandemic. The EHRC was particularly concerned about evidence of employed pregnant women or those on maternity leave being forced to take unpaid leave; forced to start maternity leave early; being placed on sick leave, rather than furloughed; or refused furlough because they have childcare responsibilities and are not deemed to be working (in contrast to male colleagues with children). The EHRC noted that some employed pregnant women have been forced to work without proper health and safety risk assessments.133

87.Working Families told us that pregnant women had been incorrectly placed on sick leave as a result of the Government’s “initial confusing messaging”, which originally implied that all pregnant women would be required to shield for 12 weeks. They pointed out that under the original guidance, employees could not be furloughed until any Statutory Sick Pay period has ended. This meant that pregnant employees incorrectly placed on SSP for 12 weeks (based on the initial guidance), were not eligible for furlough for that period, placing them at a disadvantage compared to other employees.134

Proposals for change

88.The EHRC recommended that the Government made clear to employers that pregnant employees should be placed on full paid leave, if their health and safety would not be protected through workplace adjustments. They also recommended the Government remind employers of their obligations under equality law in relation to unlawful pregnancy and maternity discrimination. Rosalind Bragg emphasised the need for healthy and safety guidance for pregnant women in different occupational settings, and for redundancy protection to be strengthened.135

89.On 8 July, Maria Miller MP (former Chair of the Committee) reintroduced a 10 minute rule bill to prohibit redundancy during pregnancy and maternity leave and for six months after the end of the pregnancy or leave.136 The Bill is scheduled for second reading on 12 March 2021. It has received support from a wide range of sources including Maternity Action, the EHRC, Fawcett Society, Pregnant Then Screwed, Working Families, the Royal College of Midwives, Unison and Usdaw.

90.In oral evidence, Paul Scully MP, Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Labour Markets, told us that the ‘rules had not changed’ - pregnancy and maternity discrimination was already against the law.137 When asked what the Government should have done, or was doing now, to tackle the ongoing problem of discrimination he pointed to “clear health and safety guidance to employers to minimise the risks in the workplace”,138 increasing the capacity of the tribunal system,139 and extending redundancy protection once an “appropriate legislative vehicle” became available.140 Asked whether the Government would support Maria Miller MP’s Bill, in the absence of a draft Employment Bill, he said:

It is the approach we might not necessarily agree with […] It basically meant that an employer could not dismiss a woman during pregnancy without first securing consent from a state enforcement body. The solution that Government favour is more in line with the current UK system of enforcing employment law through the tribunal system. We consulted on the process and we have committed to extend the protections currently afforded to all women on maternity leave into a six-month return-to-work period.141

91.However, Maria Miller MP, when introducing the Bill in 2019, noted that it would not need a new watchdog to enforce it. Paul Scully MP’s analysis of the approach in the draft Bill was also challenged by Maternity Action:

As Minister Scully surely knows, “securing consent from a state enforcement body” forms no part of Maria Miller’s Bill, which is entirely in line with “the current UK system of enforcing employment law through the tribunal system”.142

92.We are gravely concerned by evidence detailing potentially unlawful and discriminatory practices towards pregnant women and those on maternity leave during the pandemic. This should have been better anticipated by the government at the beginning of the pandemic and preventative actions taken. It cannot be allowed to continue. The Government must act now to prevent further discrimination, particularly as we enter a time of potentially unprecedented job losses, to which pregnant women and new mothers may be particularly vulnerable.

93.We urge the Government to introduce legislation in this Parliamentary session to extend redundancy protection to pregnant women and new mothers. The Government must also publish a cross-departmental strategy, following consultation with stakeholders, for dealing with pregnancy and maternity discrimination. We recommend this strategy be published within the next six months.

125 These include the Equality Act 2010, Employment Rights Act 1996, Maternity and Parental Leave (etc) Regulations 1999 and EU law such as the Pregnant Workers Directive and the Equal Treatment Directive.

126 EHRC, ‘Pregnancy and maternity discrimination research findings’, accessed 18 November 2020

127 Women and Equalities Committee, First Report of Session 2016–17, Pregnancy and maternity discrimination, HC 90

128 Maternity Action (Mrs0183)

130 Gov.uk, Queen’s Speech December 2019, accessed 9 December 2020

131 Pregnant then Screwed, ‘The true scale of the crisis facing working mums’, accessed 15 January 2021

132 Equality and Human Rights Commission (Mrs0388)

133 Equality and Human Rights Commission (CVG0023)

134 Working Families (Mrs0138)

135 Q28 [Rosalind Bragg]

136 UK Parliament, ‘Pregnancy and Maternity (Redundancy Protection) Bill 2019–21’, accessed 19 January 2021

142 Maternity Action (CVG0047)

Published: 9 February 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement