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Karen Steadman
Senior Researcher
Karen Steadman

Seeking an end to discrimination for working parents

Authors: Karen Steadman Karen Steadman

12 March 2013

Reports over the weekend about the extent of discrimination facing women who return to work after taking maternity leave, highlight a continuing issue in the UK both in terms of equality and the economy.

Results from a poll of a thousand working women across the UK indicated that one in seven had lost their job while on maternity leave. Forty per cent reported that their jobs had changed by the time they returned, with half reporting a cut in hours or demotion. More than a tenth had been replaced in their jobs by the person who had covered their maternity leave.

This indicates that little has changed since 2005 when it was identified that around 30,000 women lose their jobs each year as a result of pregnancy, with a further 200,000 facing discrimination. Government parental leave provisions aim to enable women to take time off to look after their children. Pregnant employees are entitled to 52 weeks statutory maternity leave around the birth of their child (26 weeks ordinary maternity leave and 26 weeks additional maternity leave). Statutory Maternity Pay is paid for up to 39 weeks (with the amount changing after the first 6 weeks). Shared parental leave proposals will mean that leave can be split between both parents, however, currently the weight of childcare responsibility falls on women.

These provisions do little to assist parents returning to work after taking parental leave. This remains a huge problem for many of the 29% of mothers with children under 5 years who are working full-time.  So what are the issues they face? 

Firstly, the inaccessibility of childcare. Parents in the UK spend on average a third of their take-home pay on childcare – the highest levels in the OECD. Childcare costs continue to rise at a higher rate than average earnings. Many parents are unable to afford the high costs of childcare– meaning they cannot return to work full-time, if at all. For women this problem is exacerbated by the fact that, on average, women still earn less than men. The one percent cap on maternity pay rises proposed for the next three years may also worsen the situation.

Flexible working hours need to be available to allow those with childcare responsibilities to react to childcare needs, e.g. taking children to daycare. Providing local childcare opportunities is also valuable, where feasible, to reduce the time parents spend out of the workplace, and to provide parents with the reassurance that they can get to their children quickly, should an emergency arise. The recent case of the CEO of Yahoo!, highlights this issue: Marissa Mayer returned to work just two weeks after having a baby, but this was only made possible by her installation of a nursery onsite.

For many, having a baby is still seen as detrimental to working life and career development. Many reports arise of responsibilities and clients being taken away from women upon taking maternity leave, and not given back to them on their return. It has been identified that many women feel unsupported when returning to work after having a baby. Working from home is often cited as an opportunity for women with children to continue working, however, some argue that the lack of visibility that comes with not being in the office can mean that some women are overlooked for promotion opportunities.

Many of the problems which occur for both employers and for employees taking parental leave and returning to work can be addressed simply by planning for the situation. By having both parties lay out their expectations and reaching an agreement prior to taking parental leave, it is likely that many of the associated problems will be alleviated. This also helps to create a culture wherein employee pregnancy, parental leave, and the return to work are seen as normal processes, rather than difficulties. 

Though issues around parental leave still disproportionately affect women, the move towards shared parental leave arrangements may broaden these issues to men as well. Workplace culture needs to change for the benefit of all working parents.


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Women in the workforce earning wages or a salary are part of a modern phenomenon, one that developed at the same time as the growth of paid employment for men; yet women have been challenged by inequality in the workforce. Until modern times, legal and cultural practices, combined with the inertia of longstanding religious and educational conventions, restricted women's entry and participation in the workforce.

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