In a virtual forum held on Monday 15th June, former Women and Equalities Minister Maria Miller convened with organisations from the charitable sector to discuss the impacts Covid-19 was having on pregnant women and new mothers in the workforce.
The forum was attended by the directors and chief executives of Maternity Action, Fawcett Society, Working Families and Pregnant Then Screwed, and heard the stories of two women who were unfairly dismissed.
The discussion was held in advance of Maria Miller’s Pregnancy and Maternity (Redundancy) Bill, which is due to be presented in parliament on 8th July and has already received strong cross-party support from MPs. The Bill would seek to stop employers from being able to make a woman redundant from the point that she notifies them that she is pregnant until six months after the end of her maternity leave.
MP Maria Miller said, ‘The impact of unfair dismissals during pregnancy and maternity leave can be devastating. This is always a live issue, but the need for stronger protections for pregnant women and new mothers following the coronavirus pandemic is acute, as the crisis is impacting women in ways unlike any other previous recession.
‘The protections my Bill propose aim to achieve equality for women in the workplace and would also help address the gender pay gap. The EHRC has shown that pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination results in job losses and a cost to women of between £47-£113 million a year. The costs to the taxpayer are also significant, as the Government forgo taxes and pay increased benefits to the tune of £14 million and £17 million.
‘By retaining female talent in the workplace, productivity in the UK economy would increase. Businesses would also be saved the significant costs of recruiting new talent. Protecting women from unfair discrimination is not only an issue of equality; the economic argument for it is unmistakeable, too.’
Charities expressed concern that the disruption to the economy during the Covid-19 lockdown would generate a new wave of pregnancy and maternity discrimination, including unfair redundancies of new and expectant mothers, as businesses and organisations seek to adjust to the new economic circumstances.
Commenting on the impact the current pandemic was having on women, Sam Smethers, CEO of Fawcett Society said, ‘Covid-19 is having a noticeable economic impact on women, not only because women are disproportionately represented in industries most affected by the restrictions, but also because women are more likely than men to be employed in low-paid, precarious work, and often have the majority of unpaid care responsibilities. This is an added complication to existing maternity discrimination; our fear is that the maternal employment rate which has improved so much in the last 20 years will be unravelled in the course of a few months.’
Research from the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Zurich has also found that women in the UK are four percentage points more likely to have lost their job than men in the wake of the pandemic, with 17% of women newly unemployed compared to 13% of men from mid-March to mid-April.
Founder and CEO of Pregnant Then Screwed (PTS) Joeli Brearley emphasised the ‘impossible situation’ women were faced with under the pandemic conditions, citing PTS’ survey of 3686 pregnant women and new mothers:
‘57% of new mothers felt that their increased childcare responsibilities during the pandemic had impacted their career prospects or will harm them in the future, and 78% of mothers have found it challenging to manage childcare with their jobs. Women feel that with the added burden of childcare they currently have, they will inevitably be in line to be pushed out of that job.’
This comes as research from the London School of Economics following the Covid-19 lockdown revealed that on average women perform 60% more unpaid care work than men do.
The forum also listened to accounts of women who had recently been dismissed during pregnancy and maternity leave. Nuala was initially furloughed in April but was then made redundant 3 hours before she was entitled to Statutory Maternity Pay. She described her dismissal as ‘a devastating process, which felt engineered to get rid of people like me.’
Michaela was also unfairly dismissed after returning from maternity leave, despite huge growth in her team. ‘It was obviously a very scary time for me – I had just had a baby and couldn’t face the rigmarole or cost of a tribunal. Having the proper protections for redundancy in place when I returned to work would have made all the difference.’
Mrs Miller’s Bill had been previously presented to Parliament in 2019, in response to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) 2016 consultation which recommended the UK adopt a German-model of redundancy protections for pregnant women and those on maternity leave.
Previous research conducted by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission in 2016 showed that one in 20 women are made redundant while pregnant or on maternity leave, and that yearly 54,000 pregnant women feel they have no alternative but to leave their job when they are pregnant.
Rosalind Bragg, Director of Maternity Action, welcomed the provisions of the Bill: ‘Maternity Action is really pleased that Maria Miller is presenting her Bill in parliament again. This Bill will give both employers and women clarity on their rights and obligations. Women are rightly worried that they are going to lose their jobs because they are pregnant, and few women have the financial resources to fight for justice at tribunal. The Bill would be a welcome measure to stop redundancy being used as a backdoor route for forcing pregnant women and new mothers out of their jobs.
Jane van Zyl, Chief Executive of Working Families, stressed that poorly designed jobs that then need to be retro-fitted for new parents was also part of the problem, ‘We have seen that flexible working is demonstrably possible in many more jobs than previously thought and that it’s allowed parents to feel they’re working on a more level playing field. Encouraging a strategic, organisation wide approach to part-time and flexible job design amongst UK employers will support more new parents back in to work – and is vital to unlocking more jobs in the recovery phase of this pandemic when unemployment – particularly amongst women – is likely to rise.’