WorkLife

Our thoughts on the world of employment law - and beyond.

The maternity blindspot

It's been nearly two months since I returned to work after maternity leave.  In that time, I've encountered the usual issues of snot on my suits, bouts of self-doubt, taking time off for poorly children and panics about making nursery pick up when Storm Doris wipes out the train line.  However, even with all that, it seems I am one of the lucky ones.  According to figures from the Government, one in nine women – 54,000 – are forced out of their jobs each year because of pregnancy or becoming a mother.  That feels a pretty large figure in today's day and age. 

As much as I hate to say it though, it's not a figure that particularly surprises me.  As you can imagine, you meet a lot of other mothers when on maternity leave and I have heard a fair few tales of woe when it comes to their experiences of work.  Admittedly, none of them were examples of flagrant or gratuitous discrimination.  Instead, but in my mind just as depressing, were stories of simply being forgotten about.  These included: not being told about promotion opportunities or organisational changes; having emails ignored; being missed off invites to team events; or having flexible working requests delayed so often that it's impossible to arrange childcare.  It seems the maxim "out of sight, out of mind" still stubbornly persists in many maternity leave situations.

Of course, some of this is indicative of the times in which we live.  We may like to think we've got equal rights mastered, but in a society where the gender pay gap is still 9.4% (according to the Office of National Statistics), and where the Chairman of Tesco still thinks it is ok to joke - on International Women's Day of all days - that white men are becoming an "endangered species" in UK boardrooms, it feels to me that there's still a pretty big cultural shift that's needed. 

This is not something that's gone unnoticed by the Government, who earlier this year promised to consider greater protections from redundancy for new and expectant mothers (including a German style ban on redundancy for up to six months following maternity leave except in specific exceptional circumstances).  Another idea, proposed just this week by a cross-party group of 44 MPs, is to provide fathers with a statutory entitlement to three months of non-transferable paid parental leave.  Their argument is that the treatment of women will only improve when men genuinely start sharing responsibility for childcare and feeling the impact of that on their own careers, and let's be honest, the current system of shared parental leave is unlikely to change this (the take up was only 1% in its first year). 

Realistically though, this sort of blue sky thinking will take time to turn into reality (if it ever does), so in the meantime there are things which employers can, and should, be doing.  Quite aside from the potential costs involved in dealing with a disgruntled employee (and remember, compensation in discrimination claims is uncapped), for the sake of staff retention and morale, it makes sense to try to ensure women on maternity leave continue to be treated as part of the workforce rather than simply being put out of mind.

A while back, Michal Chudy wrote an excellent article called Maternity Leave - 5 pitfalls to avoid.  This remains good law and I would encourage people to read it.  In summary, some of the headline messages to remember are:

  1. Stay in touch – lack of communication seems to be one of the most common reasons why women feel isolated from their employers when on leave.  Of course, there is a fine line between staying in touch and intruding on a woman when on leave.  However, employers may make "reasonable contact" with a woman on maternity leave, for example, to keep them informed of changes in the workplace.  Good practice is to agree with an employee the extent to which she would like to be contacted while away.  Since a woman's views on this may change, it is advisable to check that she is still happy with the level of contact after her baby has been born.  It goes without saying that any emails from the woman on leave should be dealt with promptly; it will not look good if a woman continually has to chase for a response.
  2. Redundancy: consultation – it may sound obvious, but you'd be surprised how often it doesn't happen: do not forget about employees on maternity leave when conducting a redundancy exercise.  The employee should be informed and consulted to the same extent as other employees as far as possible.
  3. Redundancy: alternative employment – this piece of legislation is often overlooked, or viewed with incredulity, but the law states that if an employee's role is confirmed as redundant while she is on maternity leave, she is entitled to be offered a suitable alternative vacancy in priority over other employees.   
  4. Pay – do not forget that pay increases must be taken into account when calculating statutory maternity pay (and in some circumstances, the increase may need to be backdated).  Similarly, it's important to remember that in some circumstances (depending for example on her contract) a women may still be entitled to a bonus when on maternity leave, albeit potentially pro-rated.

It just leaves me to say, as I alluded to at the start, that returning to work from maternity leave can sometimes be a struggle.  It is helpful for employers to remember this and try to plan support to assist with the transition.  This might include using keeping in touch days, having a returner induction programme, arranging a buddy or holding informal review sessions to check how things are going.  And my personal plea?  Try to be sympathetic towards the working mother who – as I realise I have just done – turns up to work with Weetabix down the front of their top.

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