Employers claim they care about working mothers but don’t deliver on retention

How do pregnant women and young mothers feel during important their most important phases? New studies show that one of three women don’t see their needs supported when they are pregnant or as a mother of a young baby. However, employers view the support of pregnant women and those in maternity leave for their own good. Two studies, one British and one German, have identified a range of issues related to managing pregnancy, maternity leave and mothers returning to work that include signs for disadvantage and even discrimination. 

While the majority of employers view the support of pregnant women and those in maternity leave for their own good, one of three (expecting) mothers feels their needs not supported willingly. These are first findings on pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination and disadvantage in the workplace a British research program revealed. Two surveys of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) cover the views and experiences of employers and mothers on a range of issues related to managing pregnancy, maternity leave and mothers returning to work. Despite the shared interest of employers and (expecting) mothers in supporting pregnant women and those on maternity, findings show that the implementation diverges from proclaimed goals.

Expecting mothers not only get good wishes for their pregnancies. Many face difficulties at their workplace like poor treatment, discouragement or negative comments. Around one in nine mothers (11%) left their job due to dismissal, compulsorily redundancies or poor treatment. About as many mothers (10%) report problems in attending antenatal appointments through discouragement of their employer. Even more mothers, one in five, experiences harassment or negative comments related to pregnancy or flexible working from their employer or colleagues. This result is especially interesting since only a small proportion of employers reported difficulties with issues such as managing the attitudes of other employees (5%). Still, one in twelve mothers felt her line manager treated her with less respect. Disadvantages and discrimination because of pregnancy and maternity leave do exist in British companies, although their not in the employers interest.

The Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences found similar results in the Germany study ‚Career prospects of working mothers’. In contrast to the British study presented above, the researcher concentrated on women in specialist and managing positions and considered living situations and interests of professionally committed mothers. The findings show that one of three pregnant women does not feel encouraged by their supervisor to return to the company as early as possible. Also, while 68% of the women came back to their former employer after maternity leave, every forth mother couldn’t assume their previous position and had to accept a lower work level, lower scope of influence, less paying and worse promotion prospects. Startling 65% of the sampled women reported discrimination at work through degradation of their professional skills, amongst other things, for instance through exclusion when team meetings were scheduled at times when they had other responsibilities.

“Socio-politically, this is a fatal signal. Professional dedicated women are made ​​aware of the negative consequences a pregnancy can have for their careers”, Prof. Dr. Yvonne Ziegler, one of the researchers of the German study, states. The biggest career barriers include the conservative worldview of male managing directors who cannot imagine that working mothers are reliable and espouse for job and company as well as fathers in a comparable positions. These prejudices against working mothers are also hold by female managing directors that abstained from children to achieve their position, Ziegler adds.

The researchers of the two British surveys examined practical issues that lead to this negative perception and worldview of working mothers. They found that especially the enhanced protection from redundancy during ordinary maternity leave (23%), the accumulation of annual leave during maternity leave (25%) and the uncertainty of whether those on maternity leave will return to work (25%) was viewed difficult to manage and implement. Particularly smaller employers and those in the private sector were most likely to report difficulties managing pregnancy and maternity issues across these areas. Under these circumstances, employers find it difficult to fully support working mothers and tend to treat women unfavorable.

While only a relatively small proportion of mothers experienced each of these forms of possible unfavorable treatment, a broad range of mothers reported negative experiences. Researchers were able to determine group differences according to the stages of unfavorable treatment. While young mothers (aged under 25), low earners and those with a long-term health condition were more likely to report the experience unfavorable treatment or a lack of support during pregnancy and when communicating their pregnancy, high earners in more senior occupational groups were more likely to experience unfavorable treatment or a lack of support to return to work, and negative consequences following an approval of flexible working requests. Furthermore, mothers employed in the private sector were more likely to encounter some forms of unfavorable treatment and more likely to report different forms thereof, including harassment.

The British surveys as well as the Germany study show that the world of work is far from being a place of full support of pregnant women and those in maternity leave. Many issues related to managing pregnancy, maternity leave and mothers returning to work entail poor treatment, disadvantages and discrimination. In view of the fact that the employers themselves perceive the potential of pregnant women and young mothers to be important to their company, the studies show concrete focus areas that require attention.