We must do better to curb discrimination against working parents

One in two Australian women report discrimination, despite existing protection laws. Flickr/Ryan, CC BY

A landmark study by the Australian Human Rights Commission reporting that one in two mothers has experienced work discrimination shows employers clearly believe they have legitimate reasons to discriminate against women raising families, and their partners.

But with a solid legislative framework in place clearly mandating how employers must behave towards pregnant women and their partners, is this sort of behaviour really excusable?

The Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review surveyed 2000 mothers and 1000 fathers and partners on their experiences of discrimination.

One in five (18%) mothers told the AHRC they were made redundant, their jobs were restructured, they were dismissed or their contract was not renewed because of their pregnancy, taking parental leave, or family responsibilities that included the need to breastfeed or express milk at work.

There was significant negative impact of this discrimination on women’s health, finances, career and their family. An alarming 72% reported that the discrimination impacted on their mental health. Some 42% reported that the discrimination had a financial impact on them, while 32% of mothers went to look for another job or resigned.

The report found fathers and partners also experienced discrimination in the form of negative attitudes through to dismissal. This group also reported similar impacts on mental health, finances, career and their family.

“Nothing will change”

Strikingly, their responses to the discrimination also did not vary. The survey found 91% of mothers and 95% of fathers and partners did not make a formal complaint either within their organisation or to a government agency.

Primarily mothers did not complain because they “perceived that the discrimination was not serious enough, that it was too hard, stressful or embarrassing to take action, or that they would not be believed or nothing would change.”

Researchers Byron and Roscigno in their analysis of US pregnancy based employment discrimination claims stated that what “explains the relative infrequency at which pregnant women win favorable judgments…” is that when women do contest employer actions, “the structural and cultural playing fields … are quite uneven.”

The AHRC’s findings showed that employers are confused about their own legal obligations, and about employee rights related to pregnancy, parental leave and return to work issues. It recommends assistance for employers and employees to understand the legislative framework.

Australian laws

Australia already has a suite of federal laws that protect pregnant women and new parents from workplace discrimination in Australia, including the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, the Fair Work Act 2009, and Work Health and Safety laws.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 for example, specifically prohibits discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy, potential pregnancy, breastfeeding and pregnancy/return to work discrimination. So to claim confusion and uncertainty about workplace legal obligations is difficult to understand.

Although the report cites that there are many employers who support and retain pregnant employees and working parents, other employers identified challenges managing the uncertainty around pregnancy, parental leave and return to work issues.

In response, the report advises that workplaces need a solid foundation of the right policies and practices which are effectively communicated and supported by leaders.

Effectively implementing the strategies and practices requires developing a plan from the time an employee announces her pregnancy; through to preparing for an employee’s parental leave; staying connected during parental leave; reintegrating after parental leave; and career acceleration upon their return.

Financial bottom line

It is clear that financial interests are also a concern for employers. One of the challenges identified by employers in managing pregnancy/return to work issues was “limiting the direct costs associated with training a temporary replacement employee.” Seeing pregnant women as “economic liabilities” could be one of the motivations perpetuating pregnancy-based discrimination.

However there are more primal reasons underlying the “hidden, insidious, and often intentionally carefully concealed” discrimination.

The report found “harmful stereotypes and attitudes in the workplace about "the pregnant employee” and “the employee with family or caring responsibilities”, “the flexible worker”, as well as stereotypes about “the ideal worker”, are pervasive in Australian workplaces.“

What is clear is that pregnancy continues to be associated with gender stereotypes and organisations are continually recreating gender inequalities related to working parents.

Pregnant presenteeism

Patriarchal stereotypes that ”women cannot be good mothers and good workers“ persist. There is even evidence that challenges the "common belief” that pregnant employees are prone to take sick leave. The term “pregnant presenteeism” was coined to describe pregnant employees who resist taking sick leave.

Given that increasing women’s workforce participation in Australia by 6% could increase the national GDP by A$25 billion, there is a compelling reason to curb pervasive discrimination that has changed little in the 15 years since the first Inquiry by the AHRC.

The report concludes that we are all implicated in ensuring that this form of discrimination against working parents is curbed:

“It is up to all of us – government, employers, unions, peak bodies, community organisations and men and women in workplaces around Australia – to play a role in addressing such discrimination and preventing its continuation.”