With a gradually increasing return to the workplace, the issue of pregnancy and maternity discrimination has crept back into the spotlight. As government contributions to furlough have reduced over August and September, many employers have started recalling their employees to the office or have begun redundancy processes. COVID-19 lockdowns created opportunities for more flexible working patterns, in some cases allowing for employees to achieve a better balance between their professional lives and parenthood. For some British mothers and pregnant women, therefore, the return to the workplace presents some daunting challenges.
Family charities in the UK have warned that mothers and pregnant women in particular are being forced to return to the workplace against their will. Working Families, a UK charity that promotes and campaigns for a work-life balance, has reported that women, in particular, feel unable to return to the office for as much as their employer is demanding and are seeking legal advice, with a third of calls since April 2021 concerning childcare issues due to regimented working patterns and denied work-from-home requests.
Maternity Action, a charity that aims to influence policymakers on matters relating to maternity rights, has also experienced large volumes of calls from pregnant women concerned about returning to offices while COVID cases are still high. According to the charity, many women feel trapped between prioritising the health of themselves and their babies and keeping their jobs.
Back in 2016, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (“BEIS”) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission released alarming statistics estimating that over three-quarters of women, equivalent to 390,000 new mothers each year, were experiencing some form of pregnancy or maternity discrimination at work. In response to this report, the Women and Equalities Select Committee pressured the government to urgently address the issue.
Two years later in 2019, before the UK’s working life was rocked by COVID-19, the government launched a consultation on extending legal protection against redundancy for pregnant women and new mothers on maternity leave. However, since then, barely any tangible steps have been taken by the government to address the committee’s findings.
In its 2019 manifesto, the government pledged to make flexible working the default unless employers have a reasonable reason not to. In the past few days, it appears that this 2019 commitment, planned before COVID-19 but thrown into profound focus by the pandemic, maybe becoming a reality.
In the coming weeks, the government is expected to launch new plans that will give all employees the right to request flexible working when they start new jobs, replacing the current 26-week period. However, can this adequately address the issue of flexible working for mothers and pregnant women if attitudes towards home working remain the same?
Employers should be looking beyond current statutory protections in order to attract and retain their staff during this transitional time. Many employers draft additional protections into their employment contracts to enable better rights for their female workers who chose to have a family.
At Asserson Law Offices, we have proudly put measures in place to ensure that talent, rather than life choices, guide our recruitment processes and working patterns. A cultural symptom of its predominantly Jewish values, the firm adopts a “family-first” attitude to its staff, allowing for flexible working arrangements for those with dependents and personal commitments.
Article was written by: Syvanne Aloni