Pregnant woman on the phone at work
In a survey of over 3000 mothers, 20% said they had experienced harassment or negative comments related to pregnancy

We are now all-too familiar with stories of employees being sexually harassed or bullied at work and keeping quiet for several years in order to keep their job, or for fear of being shamed. Worryingly, the issue of being “silenced” is not unique to harassment alone. A study by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission shows that around 11% of women have been fired, made redundant or treated so badly they were left with no choice but to leave as a result of being pregnant or giving birth. Over 20% said they had experienced harassment or negative comments related to pregnancy or flexible working.

The government’s response to the issue has been to propose extending the protection against redundancy to six months after returning to work. However, the results of the survey suggest that a change in law is not what’s required to create a fairer playing field for a woman to progress in their career and raise a family at the same time. Similarly to the issue of workplace harassment, the issue at hand relates to culture, something that cannot change by simply providing a dated “click-through” diversity course or changing the law. Bosses know that pregnant employees should not be discriminated against. They know that the law protects pregnant women. They know that asking women about their future family planning is not only inappropriate, but illegal too. However, the issue will only be solved once the culture changes.

Changing the law to protect pregnant employees is not enough

With 50% of respondents describing their pregnancy as having a negative impact on their job security or opportunities and 20% experiencing harassment or negative comments related to their pregnancy, businesses must do more to protect their staff. The results of the report provide clear evidence that the current law is not being enforced effectively, with women being forced to sign non-disclosure agreements. This shows that many employers are neither concerned with the law nor doing the right thing. A woman who reported her personal story anonymously to the BBC said: “I was the breadwinner, I had no legal cover and so was advised to sign a ‘hush agreement’”, stating she “had no choice” but to sign it. Examples included in the BIS report present accounts of women who experienced stress as a result of not being able to work more flexible hours and stay in the same job. One interviewee said the process for applying for more flexibility was very unclear to her.

Similarly to sexual harassment, inequality towards pregnant woman and new mothers is not simply about whether or not someone was fired for being pregnant. Often comments are made that are designed to make people feel uneasy, such as “she’s letting me down again. She’s going for another midwife appointment”. In such a case, the employer isn’t necessarily doing anything that is against the law and the proposed extension to the current law will not change that. This means the only solution is for bosses across all organisations to install a culture whereby family planning is not only acceptable and will not affect an individual’s position in the company, but that when your employee tells you they are expecting, the first word that comes to mind is “congratulations” or “that’s extremely exciting”, rather than thinking about the loss to the company of the employee having a child.

Five ways companies can support pregnant employees

There are several ways managers can help pregnant employees feel supported–here are five suggestions:

  1. Allow for flexible working arrangements: Flexible working arrangements such as remote work and flex time allow employees to manage their time in a way that works for them, helping them better meet both their work and non-work responsibilities, thereby enhancing performance and reducing stress.
  2.  Accommodate time off for medical appointments: Prenatal care requires attending regular checkups and prenatal care appointments, and the frequency often increases as the pregnancy progresses: in the last trimester, weekly visits may be recommended. For high risk pregnancies, even more frequent appointments may be necessary. Allowing flexibility around these and other pregnancy-related health care appointments can be critical for the health of the employee and the baby.
  3. Help pregnant employees negotiate parental benefits: Maintaining open communication is key. A manager might be the first person with whom a pregnant employee shares the news of their pregnancy and they are uniquely positioned to make use of all the organisational resources available to support them.
  4. Cultivate a supportive workplace atmosphere: Data from a Harvard Business Review study found that supportive colleagues and supervisors act as stress-reducing resources for pregnant employees, including a reduction in stress and depression as well as better physical health both during the pregnancy and in the postpartum period.
  5. Create an inclusive workplace culture: Work actively to create an organisational climate where all workers feel welcomed and valued. Inclusive leadership allows employees of all identities to thrive, which is ultimately best for business as well. This culture of inclusion applies, but is not limited to, pregnant employees: managers should strive to maintain open communication with pregnant employees about the what types of support they need and work to change any practices that may be discriminatory.

Having better reporting procedures – a good place to start

It is vital that those employees who are pregnant feel they have a voice should they experience any unfair treatment. Having a public reporting portal whereby staff can report any behaviour they feel is inappropriate or unfair gives a clear message that the welfare and wellbeing of all staff is of utmost importance. VinciWorks’ harassment whistleblowing portal allows staff to anonymously report unacceptable behaviour that they experience themselves or are witness to. For example, if an individual witnesses a colleague being treated unfairly, they can easily report this behaviour. The administrator is then able to track all the reports that come in and decide next steps.

MyStory: Equality and Diversity – using story-based learning to make a difference

Following on from the #MeToo-inspired course MyStory: Harassment and Bullying at Work, VinciWorks’ upcoming course on diversity brings examples of workplace harassment to life. MyStory: Equality and Diversity presents real examples of discrimination at work through hard-hitting stories. In an effort to quash the phenomenon of box-ticking training, the course has three main sections: Experience, Explore and Share, with the “Seek help” function providing the guidance and resources for staff who wish to report inappropriate behavior. You can request more info on the course by completing the form below.