I spoke to a friend recently who had just started her maternity leave. Sitting at home with nothing to do (which I did point out wouldn’t last long), she was itching to find out if colleagues were coping in her absence and making excuses to phone.
Is this normal? Yes, absolutely. We all like to think we’re indispensable and any significant period of time out of the workplace will feel weird for a while. It’s when your reasons for calling are motivated by a fear that your career will slide away while your bonding with baby that it becomes troubling – particularly if your employer is feeding your concerns.
All women in employment are entitled to 12 months’ maternity leave by law and should feel comfortable enough to take it, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. A new survey out today showed just 12 per cent take a full year and, although money is an important factor for many, it isn’t the only one.
First and foremost, don’t suffer in silence if you suspect you’re being discriminated against. Many women who contact me do so when the situation is so bad that they’re at breaking point and considering quitting even though they’re not the ones in the wrong.
More than one in 10 of the 2,000 women questioned admitted to cutting their maternity leave short because they were worried that it would damage their career and 30 per cent felt sidelined at work as soon as they announced their pregnancy. In the era of supposed equality it’s also incredibly sad to see that 10 per cent are still facing inappropriate comments or behaviour from colleagues – from the woman who, when asked for help, was told it was her own fault for getting pregnant to those who were criticised for taking all that ‘free’ time off.
Like my friend wants to do under the guise of being helpful, but actually just wanting to keep tabs on her replacement, one in five regularly took calls and checked emails relating to work while on maternity leave. Seventeen per cent even went into their workplace – on average once a week.
What this snapshot of working mums shows is that many are being subjected to discrimination, although they may not even realise it. But it’s not banter, it’s not acceptable and shouldn’t be happening at all.
What is Maternity Discrimination and What Can I Do?
For the duration of your pregnancy and maternity leave you are in what’s known as a ‘protected period’ and should not be treated unfavourably in comparison to your colleagues because of that. Examples of discrimination could include being passed over for promotion, penalised for taking time off due to pregnancy-related sickness, discrepancies in pay or being selected for redundancy.
The 52 weeks you’re entitled to is split into two halves – the first known as Ordinary Maternity Leave and the last 26 weeks as Additional Maternity Leave. You have the right to go back to the same job you left after Ordinary Maternity Leave or, after Additional Maternity Leave, the same job or a suitable alternative if your original role has changed. Yet 36 per cent of women said their role had changed when they returned and eight per cent found their jobs were at risk.
First and foremost, don’t suffer in silence if you suspect you’re being discriminated against. Many women who contact me do so when the situation is so bad that they’re at breaking point and considering quitting even though they’re not the ones in the wrong. Talk to your family, a friend or a trusted member of HR. If you feel comfortable doing so then raise the matter informally with your employer – it might resolve the matter, they may not even realise what’s happening and how it’s affecting you.
If it doesn’t or the situation is serious enough you can raise a formal grievance and you may wish to seek advice from a lawyer. Be aware, however, that if the only way to put things right turns out to be going to the employment tribunal, the case must be issued within three months less one day of the last act of discrimination taking place, and it is mandatory you go through the ACAS early conciliation procedure - so the window is tight.
Sarah Evans is an employment lawyer at Slater and Gordon in Manchester.