The Mummy MOT, a service which provides a specialist postnatal physio examination for women following birth, surveyed 1000 mums across the UK to find out their health concerns and needs as they make the transition back to work.
The findings are shocking: over half of pregnant women and mothers surveyed feel they are discriminated against at work and feel hampered when it comes to climbing the career ladder and securing pay rises.
Mothers with young children are more likely to go back to or begin full-time work now than 20 years ago. More flexible working practices and changes to government policy on the availability of childcare are a move in the right direction, but a third of the women surveyed feel more needs to be done.
Two weeks ago in parliament saw Conservative MP Helen Whately introduce a flexible working bill to help close the gender pay gap, and assist parents in sharing childcare. She argued that unless employers had a sound business reason for having specific working hours, firms should introduce flexibility to every job.
“The 40-hour, five-day working week made sense in an era of single-earner households and stay-at-home mums, but it no longer reflects the reality of how many modern families want to live their lives,” she said.
“At the moment, too many women are reluctantly dropping out of work or going part-time after having children because their employers won’t allow them flexibility.
“This entrenches the assumption that men are the breadwinners and women are the homemakers.
“As a result, men don’t get to spend as much time as they might like with their children, women miss out on career opportunities, and the country loses out on the contribution they could and would like to make - if only they could do slightly different hours or work some days from home.”
Anna Whitehouse, founder of Flex Appeal, known on social media as Mother Pukka, who has been campaigning on this issue for five years now, said it was “a huge moment”. She began campaigning after her own flexible working request was refused by her employer.
The mother-of-two, author and blogger, said she wanted to “open employers’ eyes that there are humans driving their business”, and retaining staff would be far easier if people were better able to balance their work and family lives.
According to Maternity Action, up to 54,000 women in the UK who are pregnant or on maternity leave are forced out of their jobs each year, often on spurious grounds of redundancy.
The organisation’s senior policy officer Kate Moran said: “Many are unclear of their rights or afraid to challenge their employers’ sometimes blatantly illegal behaviour. Maternity Action receives hundreds of phone calls each week from women forced out of their jobs at what can be one of the most stressful times of their lives. We regularly hear stories of women replaced by their own supposedly temporary replacement; told that their job has “disappeared” when the duties are still clearly needing to be done. Daring to ask for what are often fairly minor changes to their working pattern to enable them to combine their caring and work responsibilities can lead to negative comments and being labelled as “uncommitted”.
“What women need is a right from their first day of employment to claim automatic unfair dismissal if made redundant at any point from the start of pregnancy to a period ending six months after returning to work from maternity leave. Only in limited circumstances such as when a business has closed or there is genuinely no suitable alternative employment, should redundancy be an option.
“Employers need to know that they will face a serious financial penalty to prevent them contemplating using redundancy as a way to remove or replace a woman because she is pregnant or about to return to work.”
A government report has highlighted that companies are also forcing working mums to sign non disclosure agreements to cover up discrimination against them.
Maternity Action’s Scarlett Harris said: “Three in four mothers (77 per cent) experience some form of maternity or pregnancy discrimination each year yet many of those women will never be able to speak out about their experiences because they’ve signed an NDA as part of their settlement agreement.”
Davina Gordon, 38, from Belfast is mum to one-year-old Sonny. “I can’t say that I feel surprised that so many women feel discriminated against in the workplace after having a baby.
“It’s so hard looking after a young one and managing a full-time job with regular nine to five hours because there is no flexibility - maybe you need to leave early or late or have to pick up your child from nursery, or they’re sick and you need to work from home.
“The bill introduced in parliament in favour of greater working flexibility for mums is hugely to be welcomed.”
She is not working at the moment, and said: “I want to earn money but I want to do so in a way that allows me to still spend quality time with my child.
“I’d want to work flexible freelance hours and would be very reluctant to return to an office.
“I have friends who after having children were unable to travel at short notice and were subsequently made redundant.
“It’s a real challenge both physically and emotionally to juggle work and family life.
“I’ve friends who have left work after pregnancy and other friends who are struggling to find work that suits them since becoming mums.
“Like a lot of them I’d like to see greater flexibility, compressed hours and the opportunity to work remotely made more widespread. I’d love to see the latest bill passed in parliament.”
Returning to work is not an option for some mums. A fifth of respondents cited childcare costs as a reason for becoming a stay at home mum.
Conversely, 44 per cent of women returned to work for financial reasons. Respondents felt that maternity leave was “an inconvenience” with one hitting the nail on the head: “Those who reproduce are mostly those who cannot afford it.”
Other issues included being forced to travel, toilet access only at break times, no provision for breastfeeding mums, being “penalised” for child sickness and being refused part-time hours. Poor maternity pay can lead to anxiety and depression too.
The UK ranks in the bottom 10 of the worst countries for maternity leave offering just six weeks’ parental leave at 90 percent pay and 33 weeks at a lower rate. On top of that, British parents pay some of the highest childcare rates in the world.
Women are taxed for having periods, bear the brunt of contraception side effects and then risk stagnating their career when they have a baby; MP Stella Creasy has spoken out in parliament about the difficulties pregnant women face and having to choose to be an MP or mum because of parliament’s rules over maternity leave.
Three-quarters of respondents say they are more likely to stay loyal to a company that offers attractive benefits for mothers such as flexible and/or compressed hours and an option to work from home, while 45 per cent would like better-paid maternity leave and 35 per cent an on-site creche.
Marianne Ferguson, 32, from Belfast, works full-time from home as a communications manager. She says: “My employer is very supportive of my circumstances. Working and juggling home life can be difficult. To know that your company is supportive and respectful of your life outside of work is crucial to finding a balance between work and family life.”
Compassion, empathy, and resilience are some of the adjectives used by Mummy MOT survey respondents to describe what women bring to the workforce: “Becoming a mother makes you a better and harder worker because you have the drive to do well and perform for your children.”
Here’s to the employers who champion these values that women, and mothers, bring. Coexist offers paid time off for severe period pain. Nike provides similar leave.
Next Plc, First Direct and Goldman Sachs offer onsite creches.
Vodafone offers new parents 16 weeks of fully paid maternity leave and a further six months of working a reduced 30-hour week on full pay. Let’s hope more employers follow suit.
Women who become pregnant shouldn’t be punished for what is a biological right.
It’s time all employers appreciated this and the advantages of working flex appeal.