Almost half of mothers say maternity leave harmed their careers

·5-min read
(Getty Images)
Around half of women believe that taking maternity leave has harmed their career progression. (Getty Images)

While we're undoubtedly taking steps forward in terms of gender equality in the workplace, it seems there's still a long way to go. 

A new study by researchers at London's South Bank University found that around half of women believe that taking maternity leave has harmed their career progression.

Just a third felt that their decision to have children had not harmed their role, while the remainder were unsure how taking time out to have a baby had impacted their careers. 

Read more: Woman didn't know she was pregnant until she went into labour at a party

The negative effect was not only due to taking time out from their roles, with many mothers claiming to have faced micro-aggressions at work during their pregnancy, such as jokes about their ‘preggy brain’ or judgement for taking time off for maternity appointments and illness.

Many also reported that they felt male colleagues began to treat them differently when they became pregnant, and some reported that even as successful senior managers, they were suddenly treated like the "coffee lady" or a secretary.

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The survey revealed many pregnant women felt they were treated differently by their male colleagues. (Getty Images)

Additionally, the women surveyed reported missing out on promotions and pay-rises due to maternity leave and pregnancy.

More than a third of respondents said their self-esteem had suffered as a result of discrimination, with examples including being called “dramatic” when pointing out a problem.

As well as being treated unfairly by colleagues, a large number of the women surveyed reported missing out on promotions and pay-rises due to maternity leave and pregnancy.

The findings, which have been shared at the British Academy of Management online annual conference, came from an online survey of 104 British women, including senior managers, who had become pregnant and been in the workplace prior to taking leave.

Read more: Maternity leave rights all new mums should know about

Commenting on the findings, Dr Yehia Nawar, from London's South Bank University, who led the research, told the conference: "All women that gave feedback about maternity said that since they become pregnant, men in their companies had treated them differently.

“The most common micro-aggressions were discriminatory comments about the women having a ‘preggy brain’ when doing their work, or comments about their pregnancy…

“But there are also negative assumptions made about taking additional time off work upon return and being less available to attend meetings or conferences.”

Dr Nawar added that a large number of women had experienced a more difficult situation in the workplace because of their pregnancy, such as missing promotions and no further pay-rise or bonus.

“This demonstrates that a glass ceiling and gender bias is deep in the UK, and it is affecting women’s careers,” Dr Nawar explained.

“More specifically, micro-aggressions, discriminations, harassments, inequalities, stereotypes, prejudice, organisational culture and maternity are destroying women’s career prospects.”

Watch: What maternity leave looks like around the world. 

Previous research has revealed the problem is seemingly ongoing with a survey from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) revealing three quarters of pregnant women and working mums face discrimination in the workplace, with one in nine losing their job as a result.

The poll found one in five mums claim to have experienced harassment or negative comments in the workplace related to pregnancy or flexible working, and one in 10 said they were discouraged from attending antenatal appointments

Caroline Waters of the EHRC said ministers must take urgent action to tackle the problem.

“We simply cannot ignore the true scale of the hidden discrimination that working mothers face,” she said.

“This is unacceptable in modern Britain, and urgent action is needed to ensure women are able to challenge discrimination and unfairness,” she continued.

“This is why we are calling on the government to look at the barriers working pregnant women and mothers face in accessing justice.”

Read more: Couples conceived the most 'COVID babies' in this month

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Pregnant women reported experiencing microaggressions at work. (Getty Images, posed by models)

More recently pregnant women and new mothers have found that the pandemic has added another complication to maternity rights. 

A survey of 3,400 women carried out by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), published in June 2020, found that one quarter of those who had been pregnant or on maternity leave during the pandemic had experienced unfair treatment at work.

It also found that low-paid pregnant women were more likely to have been forced to stop work, by being singled out for either furlough or redundancy, than high-paid pregnant women.

Commenting on the findings TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Work should be safe for pregnant women and new mums. But our research has uncovered shocking levels of pregnancy and maternity discrimination during the coronavirus outbreak.

“Employers are routinely flouting health and safety law. This puts women’s lives – and the health of their unborn babies – at risk.

“Ministers must require every employer to do an individual risk assessment for every pregnant woman and new mum. If it’s not safe for women to keep working, employers must suspend them on full pay. Employers must stop illegally selecting pregnant women and new mums for redundancy. And bosses who break the law should be fined.”

Additional reporting SWNS.

Watch: Finance expert shares the maternity leave rights all mums should know about. 

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