The world of social media is alive with debate about the treatment of new mothers in the workplace. Prompted by the results of a recent survey by Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission which suggests that 54,000 new mothers are being forced out of their jobs each year, Stylist (a free weekly magazine for women in the UK) introduced a new hashtag #pushedout, asking women for their experiences of discrimination for choosing to have a baby. In the words of the magazine, the “response made one thing clear: there’s a lot of anger out there”.

The statistics from the EHRC survey are on their face certainly concerning; the 54,000 figure is almost twice the number identified in similar research undertaken in 2005 and the survey also revealed that 1 in 5 new mothers experienced “harassment or negative comments” from employers or colleagues when pregnant or returning from maternity leave.

But that doesn’t tell the full story in two important respects.  First, what doesn’t come across from the negative headlines is the fact that the same research suggests that the majority of employers actually treat new mothers well. For example, 84 percent of employers believe that supporting pregnant workers and those on maternity leave is in the interests of their organisations and 66 percent of mothers felt their employer supported them willingly during pregnancy and when they returned to work. Clearly this should be a higher percentage, but it’s more than a step in the right direction.

Second, and while this may be a bit off-message it has to be said, there are mothers whose expectations of what can and should be done by way of accommodation for them on their return are not reasonable in the context of their particular employments.  While such a mother may feel “forced out” by the employer’s refusal of a particular flexible working request, for example, that refusal may nonetheless be for very good reason.  We must not forget either that what may be perceived as “harassment or negative comments” might in fact be attempts to discuss the difficulties which certain flexible working arrangements might cause, or just be part of the fair wear and tear of workplace life but seen through the sometimes distorting prism of recent maternity absence.

In other news, this summer has also seen a number of big tech companies introducing innovative family-friendly policies. For example, Netflix has announced that its employees will now get “unlimited” parental leave, on full pay, for the first year of their child’s life. Parents working at the media company in any country – including the UK – will be paid in full for the first year of their child’s birth or adoption, regardless of when or if they return to work during that time. They can also choose whether to go back on a part or full-time basis, and can even return to work and decide to go on leave again if necessary. The likes of Google, Apple and Facebook, have become known for taking different approaches to the work environment, with the relaxed culture, fun offices and perks such as free food and gyms of Google seeing it voted the best place to work in the UK last year.

So what can employers do to reassure staff that they will be treated fairly? Do a Netflix?  Sadly most businesses simply don’t possess pockets deep enough.  In addition, these are all companies which will attract and retain just by virtue of their names and “glamour quotient”.  Their expectation that this investment would be repaid by the continuing commitment of their staff is therefore probably a reasonable one.  It is hard to believe, however, that most employees in less exciting environments would resist the temptation to use part of their year off to look for a job elsewhere.  A more effective and practical (not to mention cheaper) approach is to identify what your company does to support new and expectant mothers:

  • How easy do you make it for mothers-to-be to attend antenatal appointments?
  • Do you have maternity-related policies and procedures which are accessible to all staff?
  • Are your managers equipped (trained) to support new mothers and to recognise potential discrimination issues?
  • What is the approach and attitude of the business towards requests for flexible working? Open-minded or grudging?
  • Do new mothers feel pressurised to return to work early?
  • Are they given the same opportunities as colleagues if they want to work flexibly

And last but not least…

  • how open is the culture within the business? Is there an environment where vulnerable employees feel that (i) they express their concerns and (b) those concerns will be dealt with seriously?   The survey shows that many victims of pregnancy and maternity discrimination stay silent for fear of being regarded as a troublemaker, and while that may mean that there is no litigation or grievance, it is not helpful for morale or retention purposes.