Unfair treatment of pregnant women in work

  • Deborah Condon

New research into women's experiences at work during and after pregnancy has shown that 30% of women were treated unfairly in their job during their pregnancy, while 5% were dismissed, made redundant or treated so badly they had to leave their job.

The report, Pregnancy at Work: A National Survey, was carried out on behalf of the HSE Crisis Pregnancy Programme and the Equality Authority. This marks Ireland's first nationally representative survey of women's experiences at work during and after pregnancy.

The survey sample of 2,300 women was randomly selected from the Department of Social Protection's universal child benefit register and comprised of women whose youngest child was born between July 2007 and June 2009.

According to the findings, 33% of women described their pregnancy as a crisis pregnancy. Furthermore, the economic downturn appears to be having a major impact, with almost 50% of the women who experienced a crisis pregnancy stating that financial concerns contributed to the crisis.

Meanwhile, 27% of working women who experienced a crisis pregnancy stated that workplace factors such as ‘work commitments' or ‘concern about the reaction from employers or co-workers' to the pregnancy had contributed to the crisis.

Overall, the report noted a strong link between experiences of unfair treatment at work and crisis pregnancy. Women who experienced more than one form of unfair treatment were at an increased risk of experiencing a crisis pregnancy.

The most common form of unfair treatment was being assigned unsuitable work or workloads. Other forms included loss of salary or bonus, denial of promotion, receiving  unpleasant comments from managers/co-workers and being discouraged from attending antenatal appointments during work time.

Unfair treatment was more commonly reported by younger women, women expecting their second child, women working in the retail and wholesale sector, women working in organisations with few flexible work arrangements and in workplaces that did not have a formal equality policy.

Unfair treatment was less common among women working for small organisations and in workplaces that had a formal equality policy. Three in four women who experienced unfair treatment during pregnancy took no action.

Unfavourable treatment was also experienced by some women returning to work after childbirth. Almost one in four felt that their opportunities for promotion had decreased on returning to work, while one in five felt that their opportunities for training had decreased.

On the positive side, the availability of flexible working practices was associated with a reduced likelihood of crisis pregnancy for women in employment. Furthermore, mothers who experienced lower levels of work-family conflict during pregnancy were less likely to report a crisis pregnancy.

The research also investigated uptake of maternity and parental leave and found evidence that strongly points to inequalities among women. For example, women with higher earning potential, better levels of education and an employed partner are more likely to avail of the extended period of unpaid maternity leave and to receive top-up payments from the employer while on maternity leave.

On the other hand, women with lower earning potential are less likely to receive employer-provided top-up payments and financial pressures result in a lower take-up of unpaid leave and an earlier return to work.

According to one of the report's authors, Dr Helen Russell of the ESRI, the majority of Irish women are now employed during pregnancy ‘therefore pregnancy at work is an increasingly pertinent issue for women, employers and the state'.

"Although employment during pregnancy was a positive experience for most women, the study provides evidence that a significant minority face a range of unfavourable treatment. This includes inappropriate workloads, loss of salary or bonuses, denial of promotion through to dismissal. Such experiences can have significant financial, emotional and health costs for the women involved," Dr Russel explained.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Stephanie O'Keeffe, acting director of the HSE Crisis Pregnancy Programme, insisted that in order to successfully fulfill government policy to reduce crisis pregnancies, ‘we must also recognise that when unplanned pregnancies happen, broader areas like employment policy, workplace culture and financial stability impact on how women react to the news of being pregnant and how they cope.'

"Effective intersectoral approaches across diverse policy domains from employment, to welfare, to health are required to successfully reduce crisis pregnancy and to support the needs of pregnant employees, new parents and employers," she said.

Meanwhile, Renee Dempsey, CEO of the Equality Authority, noted that all these findings ‘demonstrate the need to ensure that women are aware of their rights regarding pregnancy at work'.

"It is also essential that employers, the majority of whom are supportive, accept and embrace their responsibilities in this regard," she added.

For more information on crisis pregnancy services, click here



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