The prevalence of maternity discrimination in the workplace

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During the pandemic, maternity discrimination in the workplace was on the rise but so have initiatives to support new mothers as well as fathers at work. Because despite the Equality Act 2010 forbidding discrimination against those who are pregnant, breastfeeding or have given birth, it is still happening and is not new.

In August 2022 we interviewed more than 1,000 mums who worked during or pre-pregnancy, went on maternity leave and have at least one child under the age of 16 to ask for their experiences in the workplace. One statistic showed that 12% say they have experienced maternity discrimination at work and more than 1 in 5 say they know someone who has. Meanwhile, an Equality and Human Rights Commission report found that maternity leave discrimination means 54,000 women lose their jobs each year.

This blog outlines the discrimination many mothers – and parents in general – continue to face in the workplace and how you as an employer can help stop that.

What is maternity discrimination?

Maternity discrimination is the unfair and unjust actions and behaviours against employees who are pregnant or on maternity leave. Examples of what can constitute maternity discrimination include but are not limited to:

  • Making unacceptable and sexist remarks about someone who is pregnant or on maternity leave – this could also be classed as harassment
  • Reducing someone’s workload, hours or pay or blocking them from promotion because they are pregnant or on maternity leave
  • Penalising sickness during pregnancy
  • Dismissing them
  • Refusing to hire someone because of pregnancy or family plans

The birth of Culture Shift due to maternity discrimination

Part of Culture Shift’s inception is because of our Co-Founder and CEO Gemma McCall’s own experience of maternity discrimination. This sadly happened not just once, but both times she was pregnant. It fuelled her desire to shift workplace culture for the better so not only do others not experience the same, but any other forms of workplace discrimination as well.

In addition, two other mums in Culture Shift have also had negative experiences or experienced maternity discrimination, which they say is one of the reasons why they feel so strongly about the work we do.

How common is maternity discrimination?

Some of the statistics we found of those working while pregnant were:

  • Nearly 1 in 10 say the way they were treated by colleagues changed negatively, increasing to 16% by a manager
  • 15% were held back from a promotion and more than 1 in 5 were not given the same opportunities as previously
  • 16% say how they were treated at work while pregnant impacted their mental health
  • 1 in 4 were reluctant to share their pregnancy news as they did not know how their workplace would react, jumping to 46% if they were in the job for less than six months

And for those who went on maternity leave and returned to work – or didn’t return – we found that:

  • More than a quarter didn’t stay in touch with colleagues during maternity leave
  • Nearly 2 in 5 were NOT looking forward to returning to work after taking maternity leave
  • 37% were NOT offered flexible working to fit around childcare when they returned to work and 9% said they didn’t return because of that reason
  • 17% say their colleagues or manager assumed their career was no longer important to them and 10% were treated unfavourably when they returned to work

Our research and others show that women of colour were disproportionately affected and discriminated against (ours was almost 1 in 5 for non-White participants of the survey), meaning sex and racism often go hand-in-hand with maternity discrimination.

The financial and reputational costs of maternity discrimination

Maternity and pregnancy discrimination claims that go to court can negatively affect businesses we are sure they wouldn’t want to happen. This can be the financial cost of payouts owed to the employee or former employee, a hit to reputation and maybe even the resignation of others who have witnessed the misconduct and discrimination happening.

Examples include:

  • Morrisons supermarket was ordered to pay more than £60,000 to a former employee because they discriminated against her after returning from maternity leave. This is just one of many examples we have heard about
  • Fashion retailer Nasty Gal’s reputation as a female-led and female empowerment company was disputed following several allegations of maternity and paternity discrimination
  • Our own research shows that 62% of people say they wouldn’t buy a product or service from a company with a reputation for treating employees poorly

A survey in 2014 by Slater and Gordon found that 44% of managers say the financial costs to their business because of maternity leave are a significant concern. But do they realise the bigger costs of discriminating against employees and the knock-on effects that has on absenteeism, presenteeism, and productivity? Studies also show that poor physical as well as mental health can be a result of discrimination faced by mothers – and their babies too.

Paternity leave and paternity discrimination

Though thought not to be as common, discrimination against fathers can and does happen. Fathers are entitled to statutory paternity leave and pay or shared parental leave but in cases where they are not being given it can be grounds for unfair discrimination. This is especially the case when women in the organisation are being given their full rights, meaning the father would be facing sex discrimination, as was the case in a landmark ruling.

However, in another case against Ford, the motor company defended its policy of only paying additional paternity leave at the statutory minimum, despite offering generous maternity pay. This was revealed when a male employee filed a sex discrimination claim against them, but Ford argued that its policies are part of a long-term plan to recruit and retain more women, who are under-represented in its workforce. Whether this is truly the right way to go about it is perhaps for another debate but does indeed still show the difference in legal rights offered to mothers and fathers.

Preventing maternity and paternity discrimination

1. Educate and raise awareness

Sometimes laws and policies need to be reiterated to people so that you know they fully understand them. All employees, including managers, should be made aware of what is unacceptable and why, and ED&I and HR leaders should be informed on how to deal with such incidents.

This also includes training managers on unconscious bias and decision making when it comes to hiring. The Slater and Gordon survey also revealed that 40% of managers avoid hiring younger women to get around maternity leave. How can employers stop thinking like that?

2. Ensure policies are equal and up-to-date

Do your policies reflect current legislation for all parents and how equitable are they for fathers as well as those fostering and adopting? At Culture Shift our enhanced paternity leave policy is as good as our standard maternity leave, which is more than what the majority of UK companies offer. Your policies on anti-bullying, discrimination and harassment should also be clear as well as detailing what support you offer parents and those who experience any form of them.

And these policies should be directed to employees as often as possible, especially when changes are made so everyone is aware of them and the consequences of breaching them. This should also clearly point to the support those who experience discrimination can receive. One of our Culture Shifters recommends Pregnant Then Screwed, which she sought help from following her experience.

3. Provide an anonymous reporting route

65% of women we surveyed said they would be much more likely to report an incident at work if they could do so anonymously. Many of the mums who experienced maternity discrimination felt they were no longer a valued team member (16%), received passive aggressive comments when pregnant (13%) or when they returned to work (7%), were gossiped about behind their backs (15%), or felt that their good work was no longer acknowledged (14%). Some were even forced to take a pay cut (6%), given less responsibility (14%) or hours (10%), made redundant (4%), or dismissed (4%).

By providing an anonymous reporting route for employees, you can help reduce incidents like these from happening and increase your awareness of them happening. Furthermore, it reduces the barriers to reporting many people face at work and increases trust they have in you as their employer to take action and create a safe, happy and supportive environment for them; one that does not make them fear sharing news of their pregnancy and keen and welcome to return to work if and when they wish.


Thankfully, there are now new rules that will give pregnant women and new parents more protection against being made redundant, as well as the welcome announcement of the Spring Budget 2023 that will help alleviate the costs of childcare to some families. Will discrimination against parents decrease in prevalence? Time will tell. If you want to know more about how an anonymous reporting system like ours can help your organisation tackle discrimination, you can do so here.

How can we help you?

Reach out to our dedicated team who will be happy to answer any questions you may have.

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