The Equality and Human Rights Commission will be undertaking a new comprehensive research project into the scale of pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that some pregnant women experience discrimination while on maternity leave or on their return to work. However, there is no up to date evidence as the most recent data goes back to 2005.

The project will investigate employers’ practices towards employees who are pregnant or on maternity leave, and these employee’s experiences in the workplace to provide evidence on the extent, causes and effects of pregnancy and maternity discrimination. This information will enable the Commission and Government to shape the most appropriate response.

The Commission proposed the project to the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) as part of a package of measures to address Equality and Human Rights, and Secretary of state Maria Miller has confirmed the funding to support this project.

Education for both employers and employees nationally will be key to tackling this issue and the Commission will assess how best to raise awareness of pregnancy and maternity rights.

Mark Hammond, Chief Executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said:  

“It is very concerning that in 2013 a number of women are still being disadvantaged in the workplace just because they are pregnant. That would be unlawful discrimination and needs to be tackled.

“We will look at existing research, gather new evidence and carry out our expert analysis to establish the extent of the problem and advise on how best it can to be addressed.”

Helen Croft, Partner at The Research Centre relates her experiences of discrimination: 

“It was whilst working as a sales director for a large corporate that I first encountered discrimination against women once they became pregnant. There was a notable absence of women in leadership roles in the organisation and at the most senior levels there were no women with children. There were numerous examples of successful and talented women in leadership roles returning from maternity leave into back office and support services roles in order to have a more flexible working pattern. It was made clear that front line roles could only be fulfilled by individuals prepared to commit not just to full time but to long working hours.

“Since leaving this organisation and working as a coach and business consultant I have encountered similar practices in other organisations, although in recent years there has been a shift towards more overt support for women during maternity. In some cases there is a mismatch between the professed support for women and the reality of their careers after maternity. A good example of this is a senior in-house corporate lawyer. She progressed rapidly in the organisation, achieving four promotions in five years before leaving for a period of maternity leave – during which she was supported with maternity coaching funded by the organisation. However, in the three years since her return she has been passed over for promotion on every occasion. This is a fact she resignedly accepts as a side effect of the “choice” she made. What is really going on here?”