Maternity leave sackings cost £280m a year, says equality watchdog
Report makes financial case to retain female staff as data shows one in 10 who return to work are quickly forced out at huge extra cost to businesses..
British businesses are losing hundreds of millions of pounds every year as a result of women being forced out of jobs after having a baby, a damning report from the equalities watchdog has revealed.
The costs of hiring and training new staff, redundancy payouts and lost productivity after women were pushed out of jobs amounted to £280m a year, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
About 11% of women are pushed out of their jobs following maternity leave – about 54,000 women a year – but only 1% of these lodge a complaint at an employment tribunal, according to the watchdog. The cost to British women who were forced out of their jobs – either by being dismissed, treated so poorly they had to leave, or made compulsorily redundant – could be as much as £113m a year, according to the report.
In a report earlier this year, the EHRC found that over three-quarters of pregnant women and new mothers – the equivalent of 390,000 women – experience negative and potentially discriminatory treatment at work each year. The report suggested that pregnancy discrimination, which is illegal, has risen significantly since 2005, when 45% of women said they had experienced such discrimination.
Many women who kept their jobs still faced a financial loss costing up to £34m in total over the year after their return to work as a result of having pay reduced, missing out on promotions or receiving a lower pay rise or bonus.
Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the EHRC, said: “This is a very important report that shows if you force out a member of your workforce because of pregnancy it actually costs you much more. There is not just a moral and legal case for retaining women who are coming back to work, but a very strong financial case as well.”
She said that the figures related to the first year after women returning to work faced discrimination, but the longer term costs – including to the state which were estimated at between £14m and £16.7m – were likely to be much greater.
Women working on zero-hours contracts and doing agency work were more likely to face discrimination and loss of earnings, she said. “Women working in more precarious roles are more likely to lose their jobs as a result of becoming pregnant, they are more likely to be held back from reaching their potential and contributing to the economy, and that of course costs the state.”
The EHRC said it was working with businesses to promote flexible working and support for parents returning to work, citing Barclays, the Royal Mail and Ford as positive examples. It called on the government to extend the time limit for making an employment tribunal claim to six months for cases relating to pregnancy and maternity and examine whether prohibitive costs – which have to be paid up front – were proving to be a barrier to women getting justice.
“The more people know there is an avenue for redress, the more confident they will be in discussing their needs while employers will know they are more likely to be held to account,” said Hilsenrath.
Emma Stewart, joint chief executive of flexible-working recruitment firm Timewise said all businesses needed to promote flexible working which suited modern families to retain a competitive advantage.
“Modern economies need modern workplaces, where quality jobs – for all – are openly advertised to consider flexible working options from the point of hire, so that businesses can attract and retain the best possible talent … be they parents or not,” she said.
The government should give more support for businesses around maternity pay and flexible working, said Mike Cherry, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses. “Small businesses know the value of supporting their staff, boosting morale, productivity, staff retention and ultimately business success,” he said, adding that FSB research showed 80% of small businesses offer or would consider offering flexible working.
“The self-employed also need support,” he said. “In particular, we are campaigning for the maternity allowance to be increased more into line with statutory maternity pay to help our self-employed members and help ensure fairness in government support.”
I was told ‘you are shit’
When Hannah Martin, a copywriter in an advertising agency fell pregnant with her first child she worked up to her due date, and did not take a day off sick. Her line manager said she could work one day a week from home, but this was never put into writing. “While I was on maternity leave, a number of my projects won prestigious industry awards and I was given an unexpected thank you bonus.”
But on her first day back at work she was told that times had changed and working from home was no longer an option, indeed she was warned to be careful because “perception is everything.”
In a male-dominated environment which combined long work hours with boozy post work sessions, Martin started leaving work at 5.30pm in order to see her baby before bedtime.
“I made sure that all my work was completed by that time, and around five months after returning from maternity leave, I was given a glowing annual appraisal.”
But a month later she noticed she was no longer being given projects, instead her partner was asked to work with an intern – who was always happy to work late.
Six weeks later she was called into a meeting with her line manager and the head of HR and told bluntly that she had 24 hours to sign a non-disclosure agreement and leave.
“When I asked why, I was told ‘You’re shit, you’ve always been shit, we have warned you many times’. It was completely untrue, they had never complained about my work.”
Although Martin sought legal advice and was told she had a strong case for unfair dismissal and sex discrimination, she was also told she would have to pay the costs upfront and the case could take a year. “I was the sole breadwinner at that time, and thought it would have made me unemployable in a male-dominated industry,” she says.
“It was very emotional. They attack you, it’s like they pull the rug from under your feet so you don’t fight back. The verbal attack was so strong. I hated myself for wanting to cry, not from self-pity but from anger. I was completely unprepared and totally floored.”
Martin left the agency, started working freelance and within a month had been hired by a rival firm at a higher salary than she had been on previously– who looked at her output, not desk time, she says. “My old firm had spent a long time looking for me, they paid a high fee to an agent to get me – then paid out to get rid of me. And they lost a good and loyal employee.”
Martin now runs the Talented Ladies Club, an online magazine for working mums.