Everyday sexism – from pregnancy to maternity and beyond


By Sally Robertson

Is it OK at a job interview to ask a woman about her childcare plans?  The Guardian published the wrong answer from its workplace agony uncle, Jeremy Bullmore, last Saturday in http://bit.ly/1EZICkd. From her perspective as a working mother and former ‘Dear Jeremy’ columnist, Ruth Cornish gave a much better answer in her blogpost at http://bit.ly/1KJF9ac , while Darren Newman spelled out the law on less favourable treatment in his blog at http://bit.ly/1bA8uY1

What, though, if the woman is already pregnant and visibly so? If the bump prompted the question, is that enough to show unfavourable treatment?  Yes.  Unfavourable, not less favourable, treatment is what counts for pregnancy and maternity discrimination. This is explained further in the article Expecting the unexpected in the April 2015 edition of TES Global’s Funding for Independent Schools, FIS magazine at http://bit.ly/1EbXdVY

For pregnancy and maternity discrimination, showing unfavourable treatment is sufficient. There is no need for a comparison with the treatment meted out to anyone else.  The bump itself and the archaic mind-set exposed by the question are enough to make the employer have to explain why the question was not discriminatory. If the ‘reason why’ is tainted by the bump, a claim for pregnancy and maternity discrimination should be made out.

But not everyone gets what ‘unfavourable’ treatment really means in the context of pregnancy. It is trite that pregnancy is a biological experience. It is as inseparable from you as your age or race. If you need more trips to the loo because the bump is pressing on your bladder, pregnancy makes your position materially different to that of other workers. So if you get docked pay or warned about the number of comfort breaks, that is unfavourable treatment because of your pregnancy. Treating you the same as others when you are in a different situation is discrimination however you look at it. If, however, you take a longer comfort break than you need because you’re having a chat, disciplinary action based on the chat is permissible.

What about coping with morning sickness, or worse?  Over half of women experience nausea and vomiting during pregnancy, with around 30% requiring time off work to cope with symptoms and 1% to 1.5% experiencing the most severe biological complication of hyperemesis gravidarum (HG).  Based on 2013 data, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and Pregnancy Sickness Support  in their April 2015 report ‘I could not survive another day’ http://bit.ly/1Ij6Dp3  estimate that around 10,000 women a year in the UK experience HG.  

The Pregnant Workers’ Directive and its implementation in UK law is supposed to protect women who are vulnerable like this because of pregnancy and maternity.  Yet the charity Maternity Action estimate that 60,000 or so women a year get sacked because of pregnancy – see http://bbc.in/1c907Ua

In this context, that even the Guardian can apparently endorse everyday sexist attitudes helps explain why the problem continues to exist. Despite complaints, this ‘Dear Jeremy’ answer is still on their website. So long as everyday sexism like this persists, ending pregnancy and maternity discrimination is as far in the future as ending the gender pay gap. It helps normalise discrimination, making it look like no more than recognising practicalities. Enforcing rights while coping with pregnancy or a new born baby can be enough of a struggle as it is – and that is before taking ET fees into account.