As well as being Participation Cymru’s Adminstrator, I am also the lead on the protected characteristics of pregnancy and maternity under the Equality Act 2010. I am the proud mother of a lovely one year girl and was adamant from the start that I wanted to return to work, largely so that she would grow up knowing that she does not have to choose between a career and a family, and so this topic is close to my heart.
I considered myself fortunate during my own pregnancy and subsequent maternity leave to be working for an organisation that treats pregnant employees fairly – in fact I disclosed my pregnancy during my job interview and was not hindered by this! I chose to take six months of maternity leave and was able to fully appreciate and use this time to bond with my daughter in the knowledge that my position at work would be secure at the end of my leave. Moreover I was only contacted socially by my team during my leave and was given support and supervision on my return to help me get quickly back up to speed with things.
My own situation should be considered the norm and not an example of good fortune. Unlawful discrimination against pregnant employees is well documented however, and every year many women have very different experiences to the one I described. One in nine new mothers are discriminated against or dismissed from their employment in the UK. While men are often seen as more responsible at work when they become fathers and can benefit from increased responsibility or promotion, women can and do suffer from being perceived as less capable and less reliable when they become mothers. This is not only an unfair assessment of the abilities of individual women in their careers (not to mention the contribution of fathers) but also damages workplaces if talented women choose to leave.
I asked some other women about their own experiences of returning to work following maternity leave and what their workplace had done to make that transition as easier. Here is what they had to say:
- To provide the informal training I felt I needed to ensure I could go back to my work with confidence
- I was able to return part-time and build up to working full-time over a period of 6 to 8 weeks
- Co-workers were sympathetic about asking me to attend meetings that were far from home or had a very early start.
- Flexible working hours
- For me, the fact that my workplace were part of a childcare vouchers scheme was extremely helpful
- It’s a simple thing but just people generally having a positive attitude towards my return
- Reasonable adjustments – my manager and team being understanding when my daughter had a bug and I had to take annual leave at short notice to be at home with her
I recently attended the All Wales Maternity Network, a forum for service users to contribute to the improvement of maternity services in Wales. During the introduction I learned that most changes to these services have come about as a direct result of challenges by service users – our right to give birth in a hospital and to have access to an epidural are a result of demands by mothers.
— Bethan Downes (@Bethanwy_88) November 23, 2015
While it was certainly positive to be part of a meeting of parents and professional (most people present were both) who were determined to improve maternity services, the number of people who shared distressing experiences that could have been avoided was disheartening. One common frustration that emerged was that mothers felt that they had not been provided with enough information to feel that they were making informed, empowered choices about the options available to them regarding where and how they chose to gave birth. Further to this many women were unaware that they had a choice in certain matters – the language used by some health visitors and midwives implied that these women were being instructed instead of advised and there was no opportunity for discussion. These issues are equally relevant for mothers choosing to return to work – if we are to insist on fair treatment it is imperative that we know what our rights in this area are.