Discrimination against working mothers could hold employers back

The survey has shown employers could be sactioning discrimination against pregnant women and those w

The survey has shown employers could be sactioning discrimination against pregnant women and those who plan on having children. Picture: Monkey Business Images/Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

British employers have been accused of 'living in the dark ages' by an organisation which has explored their attitudes towards pregnancy when recruiting.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is spearheading a campaign to improve workplaces for pregnant women and new parents, says it has uncovered 'antiquated' attitudes and a 'worrying' relationship with potentially unlawful behaviour – including discriminating against women who may get pregnant in the future.

Its survey of more than 1,100 decision-makers shows 59% of employers think a woman should have to disclose whether she is pregnant during the recruitment process. Almost half (46%) think it is acceptable to ask women if they have young children, while a third (36%) think it is reasonable to ask about their future plans for having children.

Matt Newnham, employment partner at regional law firm Birketts, said some employers couldn't help but count the potential cost of a female employee becoming pregnant. 'They will be thinking about the cost of temporary cover, whether the woman will want to come back part time, how it will affect the rest of the team,' he said.

He said more could be done to keep staff on maternity leave 'in the loop' on important workplace developments, while harsher penalties for discrimination could help drive down incidents.

He added: 'Pregnancy and maternity is only a small part of a woman's working life. The wider question of sex discrimination is a bigger issue.'

Many in the business community agree that until more is done to even the playing field for mothers, efforts to solve the gender pay gap and increase female representation at senior levels will fall flat.

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Michelle Gant, director of the Engaging People Company, said pregnancy and motherhood 'have no bearing on a candidate's ability to deliver a role'.

'Rather than thinking about motherhood as a barrier to a woman's career, employers should be empowering working mums through their policies and procedures, their culture, and through support, such as coaching,' she said.

'Mothers have as much potential to make an effective difference in the workplace as anyone else, and by not empowering working mums, companies run the risk of losing talent from their workforce.'