A collaborative search for equality: IFF’s crucial Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination findings shared at Brussels seminar

IFF’s Pregnancy and Maternity-Related Discrimination and Disadvantage report made a huge impact when it was published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and BIS (now BEIS) back in 2015, drawing attention to a number of key issues faced by mothers in the workplace. It was exciting, and a testament to the significance of this work, to be asked to present the research in Brussels last month.

The seminar was co-hosted by the European Commission, and Equinet, in partnership with the European Economic and Social Committee entitled ‘Tackling discrimination and ensuring dismissal protection for carers in Europe’. The seminar aimed to bring together and strengthen links between National Equality Bodies and Labour Inspectorates across different European Countries, to explore how to tackle discrimination related to pregnancy, parenthood and caring.

Our research

Our large scale, mixed-method, research programme captured the experiences of both mothers and employers on a range of issues related to managing pregnancy, maternity leave and mothers returning to work.

It was an important programme of work that I was proud to be part of, highlighting the prevalence of possible discrimination with 11% of mothers reporting that they were unfairly dismissed or forced to leave their job and one in five experiencing harassment. Follow the link for further details Click here

The study has personal resonance for me: the 2015 study was completing as I was about to take maternity leave with my second child. And now, three years later, I travelled to Brussels to present it pregnant with my third child. I was aware of how I am in the minority of women who have had a broadly positive experience of navigating work-life balance post-parenthood (a shocking 77% of mothers in our research reported some form of negative or possibly discriminatory experience).

The UK in Europe

I was also acutely aware of myself as a representative of the UK at the event, on the same day that Theresa May arrived in Brussels for a Brexit Summit, which was dominating the news. While the Seminar highlighted some of the current disparities across EU Member States in terms of maternity, paternity and parental leave legislation and practice, the dominant sense was one of collaboration and knowledge sharing, and a strong sense of common interest in working together towards the common goal of gender equality.

Action is being taken at EU level in this area: A key element of the Work Life Balance Package 2017, presented by the European Commission, is an ambitious Directive which sets several minimum standards for parental, paternity and carer’s leave. For the UK, key features would be new entitlement to paid carers’ leave (up to 5 days per year) and a new category of paid parental leave (4 months of non-transferable leave for mothers and fathers which can be taken until the child is 12 years old).

However, the Directive is unlikely to be in place until after March 2019, the likely date of the UK’s exit from the EU. It is currently unclear whether there will be a transitional period where some EU legislation apply in the UK beyond March 2019. while a new UK-EU trading relationship is established.

Collaborative learning

It was clear from the sharing of research findings and case studies at the seminar that the UK and other EU states have much to learn from each other on promoting work-life balance and protecting parents from unfair dismissal.

A key theme of the day was intersectionality, which came out of IFF’s research as well as that presented by the Belgian Institute on Equality between Women and Men and the Danish Institute of Human Rights. The particularly vulnerable position of women with a long-term health condition or disability and/or from an ethnic minority on becoming pregnant was highlighted as a key area for further action.

This seminar provided a platform for comparing progress towards equality in the UK vs other European Countries. The UK tends to sit around the EU average on many measures including the gender gap in employment (the headline indicator of the European Pillar of Social Rights’ social scoreboard for gender equality). The best performers on this measure are Finland, Latvia and Lithuania.

Findings from a Danish survey on Discrimination Against Parents also gave us useful clues to challenges that may lie in the future. In Denmark, where there has been a government campaign to encourage fathers to use their right to parental leave schemes, research findings also show that men are now increasingly experiencing questions about parental planning in job interviews and are increasingly ‘sharing the risk’ of discrimination when they become parents with their female counterparts. The path to increasing female participation in the workforce and reducing the earnings gap will be rocky, and it is useful to learn from the experiences of those EU states that are making better progress on this than the UK.

Research in action: going beyond findings

It is always rewarding as a researcher to see findings being used by those working ‘on the ground’. There was a real spirit of collaboration and commitment to action during the Seminar, as representatives from Equality Bodies and Labour Inspectorates came together in partnership in the breakout groups, using research findings and case studies as stimulus to generate practical ideas of how to tackle discrimination cases in their respective countries.

It was a reminder that there is much opportunity for progress when different bodies with different powers, knowledge and expertise come together. Enhanced co-operation – whether within countries or across EU states – feels essential to bring about the profound structural change needed to labour markets that is necessary for true gender equality.