As well as discrimination on the grounds of their sex and gender, many women face barriers and challenges in the workplace due to pregnancy and maternity. Having children means that parents need to take time off work, at least in the very early stages of the newborn’s life, to take care of the baby.
In heterosexual couples, the unequal caring responsibilities between men and women, which can sometimes occur, means that women often have a more extended break from work to be with the baby than men. And even when this is not a choice, the low levels of paid paternity leave often means that men have to return to work, leaving women without a choice but to take a career break. This also applies to women in same-sex relationships in which one parent has to take more extended maternity leave to care for the baby.
While women at work have come so far in the last 30 years, with more women having both a hugely successful career and a family, many women still feel mistreated at work or in their career due to having children and taking maternity leave.
What are your rights as a pregnant woman or a woman on maternity leave?
According to the 2010 Equality Act, pregnancy and maternity are a protected characteristic, which means that a pregnant person or a person on maternity leave cannot be discriminated against in the workplace.
The problem is that discrimination can sometimes be hard to recognise, even for the people doing it. Many employers might not think they are acting unfairly towards a pregnant person; instead, they feel that they are just protecting themselves or their business. For example, suppose an employer chooses not to hire somebody because they are pregnant. In that case, they may justify this by saying that they don’t want to hire somebody who is about to take time off, but in reality, this is against the law and is classed as pregnancy discrimination.
Women are also protected from discrimination because they may soon get pregnant. For example, a manager cannot deny a married female employee in her early thirties a promotion because he or she assumes she may be pregnant soon. This is also discrimination on the grounds of sex.
An employer cannot pay a woman less, offer her less desirable employment terms, refuse her a promotion, or not hire her at all on the grounds of pregnancy or maternity. This is discrimination.
Protection against maternity discrimination extends to those who may not have biologically given birth to a child, and those who did not give birth but are breastfeeding. Women and new mothers are protected for 26 weeks after they give birth or begin breastfeeding. If you face discrimination after this point, the likelihood is that you will still be protected against discrimination under the protected characteristic of sex.
Statutory maternity leave is 52 weeks: 26 weeks of ‘ordinary leave’ and 26 weeks of ‘additional leave’. This is not compulsory, but you must take two weeks off after the baby is born. Statutory maternity pay is paid for up to 39 weeks, and for the first six weeks, you will receive 90% of your average earnings, after that you receive £151.20 per week, or 90% of your average earnings, whichever is lower.
If you would rather take Shared Parental Leave and Pay, you and your partner can take a combined 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay. This needs to be taken in the first year of the child’s life, or the first year they come to your family.
During maternity leave, your employment rights are protected, which means you have the right to pay rises and to accrue holiday.
For more information, visit our guide to your rights as a woman at work.