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Last Updated: Monday, 1 September 2003, 14:40 GMT 15:40 UK
Pregnancy at work under spotlight
Harriet Davies-Taheri
Harriet Davies-Taheri took her case to an employment tribunal
A series of pregnancy discrimination 'horror' stories has prompted the first ever investigation into the way pregnant women are treated at work.

The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) said it would be launching a 17-month inquiry, because it was receiving more complaints about the subject than any other issue.

Each year, many women are sacked, or threatened with dismissal by employers just because they get pregnant.

According to an EOC survey, one in five people know a pregnant woman who has experienced problems at work.

'Appalling' treatment

Jenny Watson, deputy chair of the commission, said: "We hear of quite appalling cases of women who have been demoted, disciplined or even sacked simply for having a baby...we urgently need to find out why."

Employers who discriminate against pregnant women are breaking the law and could be liable to pay compensation
Patricia Hewitt, Minister for Women

A third of workers in the 25 to 34 age group know someone who has experienced some form of discrimination because they are pregnant.

The continuing problems faced by some women are in stark contrast to awareness of the issues, the commission said.

According to a survey conducted by the EOC, three-quarters of workers are aware of pregnant women's basic rights.


Harriet Davies-Taheri, a solicitor, won her sex discrimination case earlier this year after being sacked because she was pregnant.

She was awarded 30,000 compensation by an employment tribunal.

Ms Davies-Taheri fully supported the commission's announcement.

"I wouldn't want any other woman to have to go through what I went through," she said.

Patricia Hewitt, Secretary for State for Trade & Industry and Minister for Women, also welcomed the research.

"Employers who discriminate against pregnant women are breaking the law and could be liable to pay compensation," Ms Hewitt said.

"They are being foolish and harming their own businesses by excluding talented women from the workforce."

Need further information about your rights?

The Equal Opportunities Commission has published a new guide on pregnancy and maternity rights at work, which will be available from its website (see link on right) from 1 September.

Use the form below to send us your views about how pregnant women are treated at work.

Your comments:

I have to say there are benefits to working for the NHS. I had great support when I was pregnant and was able to come back to work after 12 months leave to reduced hours. All employers should take a leaf out of the NHS's book on this.
Frances, UK

Businesses should be able to discriminate on ability to do the job
Rob Read, UK
Businesses should be able to discriminate on ability to do the job. If a pregnant woman can't do the job as well as she could when she was employed then I can see very valid business reasons to end her contract. Technology means Women can control their fertility so children must be seen as a lifestyle choice. The current rules make sure many women are not even given a chance to work (who would employ a liability?) and this will depress all women's incomes.
Rob Read, UK

This article is no surprise - after all pregnant women disrupt the normal workflow and thus increase costs plus they are off work for a long period, it is difficult to find someone to replace them and the employer is bound to keep the job open for them - this all adds up to one big headache for employers and problems for women who are pregnant. The trouble is that the world is so short-term in its thinking. We need children in society - otherwise we will have no new employees, reduced contributions to pension funds and fewer consumers. This 'problem' needs to be addressed urgently.
Alex Roe, Italy

Whilst I understand flexibility should be given during/after pregnancy. I don't understand why Companies should pay when the mother is not at work. This is a life style choice and should be unpaid. However regulation should be in place to safeguard a position within the company should they wish to return.
Mike, UK

My wife was made redundant three months ago (four weeks before she was due to give birth) along with 70% of her co-workers because the parent company of her employers was merging several of the smaller companies together. This in itself was not breaking any law, however, her employer then tried to claim she would not receive any form of maternity leave pay. Obviously this was very distressing to both her and our unborn child.

Luckily for us I was able to obtain the legal documentation of rights on maternity pay during redundancy, and presented this, along with a letter from my Solicitor's to her employer. Guess what? The next day she went in to work she received full apologies from senior management and was given her full maternity pay package. For anyone out there that experiences problems of this nature, all I can suggest is to seek legal advice straight away and let your employer know that you are aware of your rights. It may just get you what you're entitled too.
James, UK

I have a nine week old baby and have been treated obscenely by my employer
Karen Rusher, UK
I have a nine week old baby and have been treated obscenely by my employer; refused maternity pay and sick pay, no safety assessment carried out. I have effectively suffered a constructive dismissal according to advice received but with a new baby who wants to go through the hassle of a tribunal claim?!
Karen Rusher, UK

I know many women who have taken all the benefits from the employer then decided after full maternity rights not to return to work; it works both ways.
Colin Phillips, Scotland

In my wife's work they elect not to pay any company maternity benefits to staff who work under a certain number of hours per week. I thought maternity benefits were supposed to be proportional to your pay rather than cutting off to zero below a certain salary? The holidays and sick leave are proportional, why not the maternity benefits? She resigned instead as it wasn't worth her while to stay as an employee on zero maternity pay.
Andrew, Scotland

At the age of 22, just graduated from University, I was asked by a large electronics company in the interview what my plans were for having a family. Needless to say didn't take that job.
Helen, UK

They receive far too much preferential treatment. Why should the rest of the workforce be expected to do the work of somebody else who still gets the same pay and who spends more time out of the office than in it?
Philip Ross, England

I recently lost a baby. When I returned to work after a week's sick leave, my MD called me to his office. He said he was sorry to hear about the baby and asked me when I was leaving. I said, I have no plans to leave the company. I plan to try and get pregnant again, but I will be staying with the company and taking maternity leave, after which my mother will look after my baby and I will return to work. He looked shocked and said nothing more. I am now petrified that should I get pregnant again, I will end up losing my job, as he obviously expects me to leave.
Tracey, UK

When my wife's employer was informed of my wife's pregnancy, she was appointed increasingly difficult and physically challenging tasks in a concerted effort to drive her to resignation and not return to work, as a young family "was not in the interests of her role within the organisation".
Leonard, UK

While the situation may feel bad, it is so much better than the way things happen in Mexico. When a young lady is hired by a company, typically she is asked to sign an undated "resignation letter". When she later announces that she is pregnant, the letter is dated and this way she as "quit" which means that she doesn't get any notice or any money for getting fired! This has decreased lately but, as a pregnant lady in the UK, I know that things could be so much worse. At least here things like this aren't considered the status quo.
Claudia, Mexico (now living in the UK)

I think tragically women and pregnant women are still treated particularly badly in this country
Jen , UK
I think tragically women and pregnant women are still treated particularly badly in this country, When will people refuse "equal opportunity" is no opportunity at all. The big corporates are just as bad as small firms and provide very little support to staff harass, harangue and denigrate you. It's sad but I guess that kind of treatment puts career women off having children, Employers really should "pick on someone" their own size, women are easy targets and a pregnant lady more so than most, especially as employers know that they can't be charged for manslaughter etc if they through bad practice induce a miscarriage. The whole of society will pay the price for this treatment of women when quite simply the birth rates drops even more in the middle classes!
Jen , UK

It is a lifestyle choice, but that doesn't mean women should miss out on being able to keep their job so that they can support their offspring. After all, people would soon moan if all mothers relied on welfare handouts. We would also be in a right old mess if only the idle rich could afford to have babies! Oh, to be a man - how simple and easy life is for them! I bet if it was men who carried babies the law would be even tougher.
Miranda , UK

Women having children is a fact of life. The fact that employers seem to resent this natural difference just simply shows that generally they are ill prepared for any change in the work place that does not appear to be in their favour.
Jon Green, UK

Although my company supports pregnant women very well, there is certainly some resentment towards women going on maternity leave by other staff. Because the women on maternity leave are still paid, the company can not afford to bring in replacements for them whilst they are away, meaning that other people have to work significantly harder to cover for them. That is an unfair burden on the remaining staff. Also, since only about half of the women come back to work after their maternity leave, it creates further resentment that work colleagues covered for them for 6 months only to fell cheated at the end.
Martin, UK

I am 16 weeks pregnant with my second child. I plan to take just 9 of the 12 months' maternity leave that I am entitled to. My bosses do not plan to fill my post while I am away in order to save money. This also happened last time.

The problem I face is having to redefine my role when I return. We are restructured every 2 years or so. If they manage without me, how can I justify keeping my post at the next restructuring? The worry cannot be good for my blood pressure.

In addition: last time I developed complications, leading to my leaving work without warning for sick leave, then my daughter arriving 9 weeks prematurely. There was no sympathy at all from the HR department.

They simply complained about the lack of warning and sent their standard letter informing me when I was due to return to work. I was very close to telling them where to stuff their return date!

It is difficult to look forward to pregnancy when this kind of treatment is commonplace.
Lisa (working mother of one, with another on the way!), UK

My wife works for one of Britain's biggest and most profitable companies. On returning to work following the birth of our first child two years ago, she received a returnee's' bonus of three months' salary. She is about to go on maternity leave for a second time, but the returnee's' bonus has been abolished. Instead, even better, she gets six months' full pay while on maternity leave! This shows that some world-leading companies are doing what they can to retain and reward female staff. Let's hope that, in time, more firms come to recognise the real value that female workers add to their businesses.
Cliff, UK

If a woman can continue to do her job properly during pregnancy, there are no grounds for discrimination. However, if the pregnancy means that she cannot continue doing the job properly, the employer should not be penalized for this. The woman makes the decision to become pregnant - it is a lifestyle choice - and she gives the employer no say in this. In some cases, it may be possible for the woman to be reassigned to duties more in keeping with her condition. However, in other cases, this may not be possible. I think the current trend for making "discrimination" a dirty word is very damaging. Discrimination is what allows us to tell what is good from what is bad. An employer being forced to carry an employee as a passenger because of a choice she made independently of the employer is not a good thing.
David Smith, UK

I am a single woman, with a mortgage, and all other concomitant expenses of a household. I am currently working part-time, to cover for a maternity returnee who has decided to return to work only three days a week. The post requires a full-time worker. All returnees should consider their child - its development and social integration would surely be better aided by a full-time parent. We would not then dysfunctional children, whose behavioural problems have to be addressed by teachers. Experience has taught me that, legislate as we may, women cannot have it all.
Tanya, UK

Reading through all the comments made, I feel very lucky in the treatment I am receiving being 5 weeks away from the birth of my second child. I work for a Government department, and whilst I do not get a financial package whilst on maternity leave , just the normal SMP package, my line manager and above , could not have been more supportive. I think a lot of it is your attitude towards your pregnancy. I have tried to be very positive and have indicated to them , very early on , what my intentions are , both throughout my pregnancy and maternity leave. My colleagues are also equally as supportive. Maybe it has something to do with being an older Mum, and being in my late 30s and having working for the dept for nearly 20 years? Who knows ?
Mary, UK

There are two sides to the pregnancy "rights" issue, and whilst it is easy for large companies to "balance things out", small employers simply can't afford the costs of paying someone to do nothing for many months. Is it right that a small business should be bankrupted simply because their one and only employee happens to get pregnant? Of course, everyone knows the "real life" (but illegal) outcome - no small employer in his right mind would take on a female employee of reproductive age!
Dave Harvey, UK

Unfortunately this is all too common and its not just the workplace. I represent an organisation that campaigns on behalf of student parents. We regularly receive emails, phone calls etc from students who are often mistreated just because they get pregnant. A lot of people, including women, tend to hold the view that women shouldn't get pregnant and we have heard one too many stories of students who are encouraged to abort their baby against their wishes. These stories sadly demonstrate that there is a lot more work to do be done in terms of women's rights. I am very glad however to see the EOC is to hold an inquiry - it's long overdue.
Patrick Leahy, UK

In my opinion, this is the worst form of conduct that an employer can exhibit. It is morally and ethically wrong and goes against the fabric of humanity and civilization. People who commit these crimes should be caught, jailed and their acts made public. Public should be aware of such employers and should be advised to avoid doing business with them.
Ali Khan, Pakistan


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The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones
"Firms will be involved in the investigation"

Woman's dismissal claim settled
06 Aug 03 |  Manchester
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08 Jul 03 |  South Yorkshire
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01 May 03 |  West Midlands
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19 Feb 03 |  England

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