Sex Discrimination in the Workplace – that old Chestnut?

August 8, 2013

It is getting on for 40 years since the Sex Discrimination Act entered the statute books in 1975 yet we hear today, that a survey carried out by legal firm , Slater and Gordon, has found that over 25% of expectant and working mums feel discriminated against in the workplace. How can that be in a world that provides robust legal recourse for women who feel that they are treated less favourably at work, and an enlightened employment environment where employers have been terrified into saying boo to any of their staff for fear of being hauled up in front of an employment tribunal?

According to the survey of 1,975 women, a third found it impossible to climb the career ladder and 54% said that their employer could do more to support working mums…

MORE!!! I hear you cry. For small business owners the prospect of managing a pregnant employee can herald significant additional expense, in terms of introducing a more flexible approach to accommodate their legal rights to time off during pregnancy, and then after the baby is born, helping them back to work by considering and, wherever possible, agreeing to requests for flexible working. Add to this the need to give time off to mum’s to deal with child emergencies and sickness, the disruption for the small business can impact greatly on service delivery and in the end, the bottom line.

At the same time as mums are crying out for better treatment in the workplace, and employers are holding their heads wondering just how they are going to accommodate mothers of young children, (who, to be honest, in many cases are putting themselves under huge pressure working and managing the needs of a young, dependent family), the government is introducing tax incentives to encourage all mums back to work.

So what is going on? Are the cries from mums about better treatment really justified? How many working mothers are really looking to build their careers when for many their priorities are being severely challenged once a family comes along? Do employers generally adopt an unsupportive attitude to working mothers? We think not.

Take a look at our European cousins. In Germany, for example, we observe a culture which values the role of motherhood extremely highly and supports stay at home mothers through generous maternity leave entitlements (3 years for one child, 7 years for two) supported by higher child benefit payments and tax incentives to stay at home. In this culture, mothers trying to return to work with very young children are not considered to be heroic, quite the opposite. Here in the UK over the last 20 years or so, stay at home mums have suffered a huge decline in support from successive governments who appear to be hell bent on pushing them back to work as soon as possible after their children have left the womb.

In Germany also, the average working week is much shorter than in the UK where sometimes we seem to be valuing success in terms of the ridiculously long hours many of us work – yet productivity per head is higher in Germany and their economy is the most stable in Europe.

So what do we learn from this? In the UK maternity leave and pay provision is inadequate to provide for the needs of new parents. Because of this, there is a knock on effect for employers who bear the brunt of working parents, particularly mothers, trying to juggle work and home demands at an almost impossible level. As a result of this, is it not conceivable, that some parents, again, particularly mothers, will not always be as sharp when they are at work, or have their eye on the ball of career development when they are also wanting to attend the child’s first school play.

We have met many reluctant working mothers who go to work not because they want to but because they are caught up in a system that requires them to do so in order to survive. From the point of view of their employers, it may be apparent that they do not necessarily have the ambition and drive of their colleagues, and they cannot make the same commitment as others may be able to.

So whilst this survey presents some interesting facts, mums wanting more from their employers because they are trying to manage in what can often be hugely stressful circumstances, and employers finding it frustrating and often impossible to be able to respond to this, should we not be looking to the government to provide a support structure for those mums who would, frankly, rather be at home until their children are a bit older, rather than exerting unrealistic pressure on new mums that can only result in less productivity and more conflict in the workplace than it provides gains to our economy.

For more information on sex discrimination in the workplace, the maternity and parental rights of employees and your obligations under family friendly legislation contact us at info@hitchinhr.co.uk

To discuss any particular issues you are currently experiencing, call Jenny on 07974 314312.