Employers’ attitudes to recruiting women ‘in the dark ages’

Feb 19, 2018


By Lyndsey Hall

Despite recent changes in legislation regarding the gender pay gap, flexible working and shared parental leave, new research by YouGov on behalf of the Equality and Human Rights Commission has shown that many employers still have outdated views on the recruitment of young women and mothers.


A survey of 1,106 senior decision makers in business found that over a third (36%) of private sector employers believe it’s reasonable to ask women about their plans to have children in the future during the recruitment process. 59% of employers agreed that a woman should have to disclose whether she is pregnant during the hiring process, and 46% thought it was reasonable to ask women if they have young children during recruitment.


The survey, which was commissioned to understand managers’ attitudes around pregnancy and maternity discrimination, revealed that 44% of employers believe women should work for an organisation for at least a year before deciding to have children. The same number agree that women who have had more than one pregnancy whilst in the same role can be a ‘burden’ to their team. 40% of employers claim to have seen at least one pregnant woman in their workplace ‘take advantage’ of their pregnancy, whilst around a third believe women in work who become pregnant and new mothers are ‘generally less interested in career progression’ in comparison to other employees in their company. 41% even said that pregnancy in the workplace puts ‘an unnecessary cost burden’ on the business.


As a result of the study, the Commission is calling on employers to work to eliminate these outdated attitudes and, more importantly, pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace, for good. Its new Working Forward campaign is backed by some of the UK’s leading businesses and industry bodies, including Barclays, BT Group and Royal Mail, and supports pregnant women and new parents in work by providing resources and materials to members who make the Working Forward pledge.


Rebecca Hilsenrath, Chief Executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “It is a depressing reality that, when it comes to the rights of pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace, we are still living the dark ages. We should all know very well that it is against the law not to appoint a woman because she is pregnant or might become pregnant. Yet, we also know that women routinely get asked questions around family planning in interviews. It’s clear that many employers need more support to better understand the basics of discrimination law and the right of pregnant women and new mothers.”


Sarah, a mother of two young children who was made redundant during maternity leave for her first child, said: “It’s sad to think that things like this are still happening. I feel angry all the time that you can be a mother with young children and, unless you’re in a job that protects you, your whole world can come tumbling down. It is essential for employers to be honest and ensure there is good communication between them and those on maternity leave so that pregnant women and new mothers are given the support they deserve.”


Employers' attitudes to recruiting women in the dark ages Knowles Warwick Chartered Accountants Sheffield


Sadly, Sarah’s story is not a one-off. A previous study by the EHRC in 2015 estimated that around 54,000 new mothers are made redundant during maternity leave every year, double the number since the previous report in 2005, just a decade earlier. The survey of 3,200 women, which was carried out in conjunction with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, found that one in nine had been dismissed, made compulsorily redundant or been treated so poorly they had to quit their job.


In addition, the report showed that 10% of women were treated worse by their employer after returning to work from maternity leave, and one in five new mothers experienced harassment or negative comments from colleagues, their manager or their employer when pregnant or on returning to work. 7% said they were put under pressure to hand in their notice, and one in 20 reported receiving a pay cut or reduced bonus after returning to their job. Even when given the chance to work flexibly on their return, around half said it negatively effected their work opportunities and they felt their opinion was less valued.


Justine Roberts, Chief Executive of parenting website Mumsnet, said: “Despite legislation designed to protect women from discrimination in the workplace, it’s clear that in many cases, companies are simply not following the rules. It’s short-sighted for employers to lose talented women who have built up skills and experience just because of unwillingness to support them on maternity leave and on return to work.”


Rosalind Bragg, director of Maternity Action, said: “This research paints a shocking picture of the experiences of pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace. It is unacceptable that 54,000 women each year are dismissed or bullied out of their jobs purely because they became pregnant. Action to protect women’s rights to work during their childbearing years is long overdue. The government needs to move beyond family-friendly rhetoric to delivering practical solutions to this widespread and growing problem.”


Since 2015, the government has made great strides towards encouraging equality for women and parents in the workplace, however it is clear from the most recent research that opinions and procedures within private sector businesses have been slow to catch up with the legislation. The Commission estimated that the cost of hiring and training new staff, redundancy pay-outs and lost productivity after women were pushed out of jobs amounted to £280 million per year, and the resulting cost to British women could be as much as £113 million, so the overall financial benefit of keeping women in work after having children is enormous.


To find out more about your rights at work, take a look at the following government policies supporting women and parents in work:



Join the conversation on Twitter and check out the hashtag #maternitywrongs for more real life experiences of pregnancy and maternity discrimination.



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