Two recent studies have revealed stark findings about the challenges, obstacles and discrimination that women continue to face in the workplace I including sexual harassment and pregnancy/maternity discrimination. In this article, Rachel Suff, Employment Relations Adviser discusses these troubling findings and argues that more action is needed by government to tackle these issues, and says that a wider shift in culture is required in organisations to promote genuine gender equality.

Over the past few months there has been more than one worrying study about the extent and nature of disadvantage women continue to experience in UK workplaces.

Pregnancy- and maternity-related discrimination still very much in evidence

First, there were two surveys that examined the experiences of employers and mothers in relation to managing pregnancy, maternity leave and mothers returning to work. Commissioned by the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the research unveiled disturbing findings about the prevalence and nature of pregnancy discrimination and disadvantage in the workplace.

The headline statistics showed a sobering picture. Overall, three in four mothers (77%) said they had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy, maternity leave, and/or on return from maternity leave. Around one in nine mothers (11%) said they felt forced to leave their job. Further, one in five mothers (20%) said they experienced harassment or negative comments related to pregnancy or flexible working from their employer/colleagues, while one in ten (10%) mothers were discouraged from attending antenatal appointments.

While the majority of employers (84%) reported that it was in their interests to support pregnant women and those on maternity leave, more than a quarter (27%) felt pregnancy put an unreasonable cost burden on the workplace and 17% believed that pregnant women and mothers were less interested in career progression and promotion than other employees.

Sexual harassment at work also remains a serious problem

The second research study of concern for female equality is the TUC’s survey, released in August, showing that nearly two in three young women have experienced sexual harassment at work. It revealed that, of those surveyed:

  • ‘nearly one in three (32%) of women have been subject to unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature while at work
  • more than one in four (28%) of women have been the subject of comments of a sexual nature about their body or clothes at work
  • nearly a quarter (23%) of women have experienced unwanted touching – like a hand on the knee or lower back at work
  • a fifth (20%) of women have experienced unwanted verbal sexual advances at work
  • around one in eight (12%) women have experienced unwanted sexual touching or attempts to kiss them at work.’

Employment regulation is vital but more action is needed

Given that sex discrimination legislation has been a firm part of employment law in this country for several decades, it's disappointing, to say the least, to read these statistics. The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone because of their sex and also protects women against pregnancy and maternity discrimination. However, these findings show that regulation alone - although very important in setting standards and providing a route for individuals to bring a claim for discrimination and/or harassment - is not enough to stamp out discriminatory attitudes and behaviour towards women in the workplace. Successive CIPD surveys have shown how much employers value talent and the importance they attach to fostering diversity and inclusion, which makes the serious gap in workplace diversity practices identified by these studies all the more alarming.

Despite the UK’s strong framework of employment protections, it’s clear that more public interventions are needed to address the worrying situation that the research has uncovered. The CIPD is therefore very pleased to be part of an alliance to end pregnancy and maternity discrimination, formed by some of the UK’s biggest businesses. Launched by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the ‘Working Forward – supporting pregnancy and maternity rights’ alliance will show employers how to attract, develop and retain women at work. The EHRC says the alliance was developed ‘in response to the sharp contrast of 84% of British businesses who said they supported pregnant women and those on maternity leave, compared to the 77% of mothers who told us they had a negative or discriminatory experience at work.’

However, the CIPD reports that some campaigners have called on the government for further assistance to tackle this complex problem, including Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, an organisation that campaigns to end pregnancy discrimination. She said that while the alliance can ‘change the narrative on pregnancy and maternity from one of it being a burden’, the government needs to step in and change legislation.

The new alliance will encourage businesses in their supply chains to sign up to the coalition and pledge to make their workplaces the best they can be for pregnant women and new mothers. Practices include nominating a gender equality champion at board level, training and supporting line managers, and promoting family friendly policies, including advertising all jobs as open to flexible working where appropriate. Companies will share their knowledge, experience and good practice with businesses that sign up.

Cultural change at a workplace level

As well as higher-profile action at a public policy level, there needs to be wider cultural change in organisations to promote genuine gender equality. For example, employers should have in place a robust framework and policies to counter any potential harassment or discrimination against women, including unconscious bias, and these policies need to cover every aspect of employment including recruitment and selection, training and promotion. But policies are not enough on their own: the importance of gender equality needs to be promoted at every level of the organisation, because having a supportive and inclusive culture around diversity is the only way to ensure, not only that any form of discrimination and harassment aren’t tolerated, but that people's behaviour reflects the right values and behaviour around diversity.

Senior leaders therefore have a vital role to play in demonstrating the expectations and attitudes that promote gender diversity - these need to be communicated effectively to the whole workforce and embedded in training for line managers so that their management style is open and inclusive.

Any evidence of discriminatory behaviour or harassment among staff needs to be investigated and acted on swiftly and a clear message sent out that it will not be tolerated. Further, organisations should monitor the gender diversity of their workforce at every level, including at recruitment, for succession planning and the number of women who are making it into middle and senior level management roles. Through having this data it should be possible to have a clear picture of whether or not there is any potential discrimination on grounds of gender.

It's in the interest of employers to not only eradicate discrimination and harassment against women in the workplace but to develop proactive strategies for progressing female talent, so that they can reap the many benefits from having a gender-diverse workforce. This will help to prevent employers from losing valuable female talent by default; there are also serious implications for businesses from a much wider perspective – for example, how organisations attract and retain female talent, for the female labour market and for women’s economic independence.

About the author

Rachel Suff, Senior Policy Adviser, Employee Relations

Rachel Suff joined the CIPD as a policy adviser in 2014 to increase the CIPD’s public policy profile and engage with politicians, civil servants, policy-makers and commentators to champion better work and working lives. An important part of her role is to ensure that the views of the profession inform CIPD policy thinking on issues such as health and wellbeing, employee engagement and employment relations. As well as conducting research on UK employment issues, she helps guide the CIPD’s thinking in relation to European developments affecting the world of work. Rachel’s prior roles include working as a researcher for XpertHR and as a senior policy adviser at Acas.

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