Last reviewed 26 July 2016

Gudrun Limbrick asks if we’re honest, is it all just a nightmare for employers?

More and more women are entering the workforce. While the proportion of working age men in employment is still higher (currently standing at 79%), the proportion of women in work is catching up. It now stands at 69% which is the highest proportion we have seen since records of this nature began in 1971. The vast majority of those women are, inevitably, in their child-rearing years. The recent increase in the retirement age for women has slightly skewed this, but, women of child-rearing age remain the most numerous in the world of employment. While the growing number of women in employment is great news for the economy and the growth of gender equality in the workplace, as well as in the home, this development may have some impacts on the workplace which are worth our consideration.

Parenthood is a significant development in a person’s life, arguably the most significant development. This is certainly true of personal/home life (and perhaps social and leisure life) but it may also be true of our working lives too. Despite all the strides forward we have made in DNA understanding, in vitro fertilisation and other related topics, it is a fact of life that when humans procreate, it is women who are the baby carriers. The fathers, and indeed same-sex co-parents, can simply carry on as usual able to take nothing more than an occasional supportive role. This can have significant implications on how the working lives of the two parents are affected.

For parents, this time can feel like an exciting new beginning, for employers, it can feel like the expensive end of a relationship with a previously effective staff member. Pregnancy only lasts nine months and may only be confirmed for eight or seven of those months, and yet the knock-on effects can last for many years to come — both for the parents and, arguably, for the employer.

Looking at it first from the employer’s perspective, it can be a moment of disappointment when treasured employees drop the bombshell that they are having their first child. It is rarely completely unexpected but can still represent a time of frustration for the employer when the even keel developed is facing a severe testing. There are, of course, the practical problems and the expense of covering the individual’s role to consider through the time of maternity leave but there are also, less tangible issues to consider. Perhaps the woman will lose focus as her priorities shift from her career to her impending motherhood. Perhaps there will be problems with the pregnancy, or maybe there will simply be the problems of finding cover for the medical and scan appointments a woman needs during pregnancy.

The immediate concerns are not always the ones that concern an employer. Questions about the future may also be troubling. Will the employee want to return to work after the baby is born? If she does, will she have lost her usual drive and focus and instead be interested only in sharing baby photos? Will problems of childcare into the future mean she will no longer work overtime or be so eager to cover other absences? Will she herself have more absenteeism to cover the illnesses of her child?

Of course, it is not just the employers of the new mother who may have concerns. The recent introduction of paternity leave means headaches in terms of short-term cover. It can also be no longer assumed that it is only the woman who may not wish to return to work. Men may also now consider being full-time carers. And parenthood may also mark a time of change in men’s focus at work. Almost overnight, new fathers’ priorities may shift from cash flow forecasts to leisure time with the family and they may also be forced to take sudden time off to ferry their children to appointments and look after them when they are sick.

From the prospective new parents’ perspective, there is also uncertainty about the future and negotiations to take place about childcare and career priorities. Where an individual is to become a single parent, the time may need even more planning and preparations. The mother may also have physical issues which need to be catered for such as morning sickness or perhaps backache. The whole issue may be distracting (in a positive way in terms of the excitement and in a negative way in terms of dealing with uncertainty and medical issues) preventing parents from focusing fully on matters of work which they previously found completely absorbing.

One of the concerns for women is often how they can ensure that they can maintain their chosen job or their chosen career path and combine successfully parenthood with work. The ideal for many women (and often achieved of course) is to breeze through pregnancy and return to work as if, more or less, nothing has happened. For others of us, this is not easy and the cause is often the supportiveness of employers, rather than the pregnancy itself or even the ensuing child.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) recently carried out research that is of concern to all employees. The study, looking at 3000 working mothers and employers found that 77% of employees had experienced a negative or a discriminatory experience during their pregnancy, while on their maternity leave or when they went back to work. This sort of level of discrimination only serves to make prospective new parents more nervous about giving their happy news to their employer. Seventy per cent of employers stated that women should declare pregnancies when they were interviewed for their job and 25% felt it was reasonable to ask women about motherhood plans during the recruitment process. Given the level of discrimination, women not only have a legal right not to be asked these questions but it also makes perfect common sense.

The EHRC has made recommendations based on its findings to the Government including work to raise awareness of the rights of pregnant women and a collective insurance scheme to spread the cost of maternity packages for small to medium-sized businesses.

It seems, however, that what we need is a mind shift. Pregnancy is a fact of life, and a very necessary fact of life. There are also many other advantages to pregnancy — many an employee has settled down and focused after becoming a parent. Many parents are committed workers post-pregnancy because of the need to fund their parenthood. And many parents are loyal to the companies that have supported them through their pregnancies.

In an ideal world, what we need is better dialogue between employers and new parent employees and an honesty about what both parties want (if only because very often all parties actually want the same thing — a happy employee doing a great job). To achieve this, employers need to commit to ensuring that no pregnant employee experiences discrimination at work and that the employer can be sufficiently flexible to help new parents through the more difficult times. And this needs to apply equally to both parents. Perhaps then, pregnancy on the workplace can become something to be celebrated and not something to be feared.