Maternity discrimination is still rife in the UK, but the scale of the problem is hidden by gagging orders that block women from speaking out after they have settled out of court.
That’s according to a report by the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme investigating the prevalence of maternity discrimination. In 2015, the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that around one in nine mothers said they had been fired, made compulsorily redundant or treated so badly at work they felt they had no choice but to resign.
Many women settle out of court rather than take their employer or former employer to a tribunal over maternity discrimination. This may be because they are unaware of the deadline for starting proceedings to take a case to a tribunal (within three months of the alleged discrimination taking place). Others feel that they cannot face the added emotional and financial pressure of a tribunal while they are pregnant or caring for a new baby.
However, after settling out of court, the women are usually required to sign agreements containing confidentiality clauses. This bars them from talking publicly about the discrimination they faced, masking the extent of the problem.
“I’ve never seen a settlement agreement that didn’t have a very strict confidentiality term in it,” Karen Jackson, director of law firm Didlaw and a specialist in discrimination cases, told the BBC.
Jackson said she had personally acted against several high-profile companies who mistreated pregnant employees and employees who had recently given birth, but could not name them because of confidentiality agreements.
“Household names, brands that we know, banks, insurers, utility companies, big conglomerates, retail – you name it, these companies have all at some point had some issues,” she said.
Maternity discrimination isn’t a new problem, despite there being legislation in place that supposedly protects women from unfair treatment (the Employment Rights Act and the Equality Act). In 2015, 43-year-old Hannah told Stylist that she had been forced to resign from her job in advertising and sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) after returning to work from maternity leave.
“I consulted a couple of lawyers, but they said the best I could do was haggle for a better pay-off,” she said. “I was the breadwinner and couldn’t waste money on legal fees, so I signed the NDA. The worst part was that it stated that I had to say the reason I had left was because ‘I couldn’t cope with the role’.”
Another woman, Marie*, said that she wasn’t allowed to take her discrimination case to a tribunal because the three-month deadline (of which she was unaware) had passed. “We settled out of court,” she said. “I’m lucky I came out of it unscathed, but I wish I’d known about that deadline before.”
In January this year, the government described it as “appalling that some new and expectant mothers feel alienated and discriminated against in the workplace”, and promised to ensure that new and expectant mothers would be given “sufficient protections from redundancy”.
However, the Women and Equalities Committee criticised the government for failing to lay out firm policy plans for exactly how they intended to protect women from discrimination. No new legislation has since been introduced.
Stylist.co.uk has reached out to the government for comment. Updates to follow.