Taking maternity leave is nothing to apologise for!

maternity-leave-webI have been reading this morning about ‘Working Forward’ the new campaign set up by the Equality Human Rights Commission and a number of leading British businesses aimed at supporting pregnancy and maternity rights and showing employers how to ‘attract, develop and retain’ women.

The new alliance was formed to share ideas, good practice and expertise in this area, and was largely in response to research published earlier in the year by the Commission and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which revealed that 77% of new mothers experience at least one discriminatory/negative experience at work, while 84% of employers claim to be supportive in this area.

Clearly all those new mothers don’t work for the remaining 16% of employers, although it’s perhaps not surprising that employers would be reluctant to say they are anything less than supportive to new mothers. Some of that discrepancy is likely to be a result of HR/leadership in many organisations putting in place appropriate policies and initiatives, but attitudes ‘on the ground’ in those organisations remaining negative and unsupportive.

This is possibly because line managers feel they bear the brunt of the ‘inconvenience’ of pregnancy/maternity leave. Things like making health and safety changes, accommodating possibly increased absence rates, ante-natal appointments, maternity cover and perhaps accommodating flexible working requests. When you’re dealing with that stuff, it can be difficult to remember the bigger picture and to recognise that all the research points to the business benefits of a diverse workforce and supportive maternity arrangements.

One of the things I do in my ‘free’(!) time is give advice occasionally in the Employment section of an online parenting forum. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the individuals seeking advice are asking questions related to pregnancy and maternity leave. But what always surprises and disappoints me are the responses to questions about telling potential employers about a pregnancy. Fairly often you get people who have applied for a job and somewhere in the process have discovered they are pregnant, or they were at the time of applying, and they are wondering whether to tell the potential employer, or even whether to withdraw their application altogether, to be ‘fair’ to the company.

On a parenting forum you would perhaps expect people responding to the query to be overwhelmingly supportive, to encourage the woman to continue to pursue her career, to reassure her of her right not to be discriminated against. But often there are several people who do the opposite, and talk about it not being ‘fair’ to keep the pregnancy secret, and that the potential employer ‘deserves’ to know before the offer of employment is made.

My question in response to those comments is always ‘Why does the employer need to know? What do you expect them to do with that information? In what way do you think it is relevant to the decision about which candidate is best for the job?’ Because really, those people are saying they expect (and think it’s fine for) the employer to discriminate and withdraw the offer/not offer the job because of the pregnancy. Because otherwise for what reason do they need the information before offer rather than after?

Telling a potential employer during the recruitment process implies that you think the information should be taken into account during the decision being made. As if pregnancy is an inconvenience to be apologised for and something that will make someone less competent at their job. And while women themselves and line managers on the ground hold that view, will a campaign at the top level make much difference? In my view the most effective way of tackling this type of discrimination is to educate managers better about the business benefits of a diverse workforce and supportive maternity arrangements, and about how to manage the process without a negative impact on the team, including the pregnant employee. Hopefully this latest EHRC campaign will involve sharing some practical, realistic ideas on doing this.

Pregnancy should not be anything to feel ashamed of or to apologise for. Any employer worth their salt realises that writing off half the workforce and potentially wasting half that talent for the sake of a couple of years spent on maternity leave during the course of a working life is not playing the long game and isn’t sensible business strategy.

If you’ve experienced discrimination or felt you couldn’t divulge your pregnancy status at a job interview and are thinking of becoming self-employed, do get in touch.