We need an all-Ireland campaign to promote equality for working mothers

Work culture discriminates against women who want to have children, study shows


That more than a third of working women in Northern Ireland say they were treated unfairly or disadvantaged due to pregnancy or taking maternity leave, as revealed in an Equality Commission study, is disturbing. The study of more than 900 mothers also found that more than half believed their career opportunities were negatively affected as a result of pregnancy. They felt they were expected to make a choice between parenthood and a rewarding career path.

Coming some 40 years after the introduction of legislation in Northern Ireland to provide protection from sex discrimination in employment, the Equality Commission research shows the law is clearly not protecting the health or work status of pregnant women and mothers. As a result, women experience termination of employment, having their role changed against their wishes, and losing out on salary increases or bonus payments by comparison to their colleagues.

While most employers surveyed in the study said they provided support for pregnant employees and new mothers – flexible working arrangements, childcare vouchers and phased return-to-work incentives – the evidence suggests a prevailing work culture that discriminates against women who wish to have children.

Is the situation any better in the Republic? A 2011 HSE/ Equality Authority survey found the majority of women employed during pregnancy were satisfied with their treatment at work. However just under a third experienced problems, including 5 per cent who were dismissed while pregnant; some 8 per cent said they were discouraged from attending antenatal appointments during work hours. Unfair treatment was most common among women working in the retail and wholesale sectors.

While tougher laws may play a role, real progress in equality for pregnant women will only come through targeted efforts to change the workplace culture and a real shift in the societal expectation of working parents. We should start with an all-island campaign promoting equality for working mothers and pregnant women.