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TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady – Getting out of the 1970s timewarp: Five suggestions to end discrimination at work for new mothers

New mothers

Frances O’Grady is a UKCES Commissioner and has been an active trade unionist and campaigner all her working life, working for the Transport and General Workers Union before joining the TUC (Trades Union Congress) in 1994 and going on to become its first female General Secretary in 2013. Frances helped to launch the TUC’s Organising Academy, which set out to attract a generation of new ‘young guns’ into the trade union movement and shift the ‘male, pale and stale’ stereotype to a profile that better fits a six million plus membership that is now 50:50 men and women. Frances has two adult children and lives in North London. 

Frances O'Grady
Frances O’Grady

Forty years ago the law was changed to protect pregnant women from ill-treatment at work, but a new report, The Pregnancy Test: Ending Discrimination at Work for New Mothers, published on 2nd December by the TUC suggests that the attitudes of many employers are still stuck in the 1970s – with the sacking, bullying and side-lining of expectant mothers commonplace. 

Stuck in a 1970s timewarp

The law might have changed 40 years ago, but the way many employers behave when they discover an employee is pregnant suggests they are stuck in a 1970s time warp – back to an age when starting a family meant the end of paid work for women.

This report shows that for many women what should be one of the happiest times of their lives soon becomes full of anxiety and stress – one where bullying, harassment and ill-treatment in the workplace is an unacceptably common experience.

Valuing mothers who work

More needs to be done to drag old-fashioned employers into the 21st century so that mothers who work are as valued by their bosses as working fathers.

Challenging the stereotypes

The government could help by raising statutory pay for parental leave from its miserly rate of £138 a week. This would encourage more dads to take time out of the workplace and help challenge the stereotypes about working mothers.

Stronger rights to flexible working are crucial too, to ensure that both parents are able to advance their careers and achieve a better balance between their busy work and home lives.


Key findings from the report include:

Poor employer attitudes towards mums-to-be can be seen from the rise in the number of cases taken to employment tribunal

During the recession, tribunal complaints involving pregnant women went up by a fifth, and in the five years from 2008 to 2013, more than 9,000 women took their employers to a tribunal.

Pregnancy and motherhood can seriously affect a woman’s career

Around a quarter of women don’t return to work after maternity leave, and one in six of the mums who do go back, change jobs because their employer won’t allow them to work reduced or flexible hours.

Motherhood also comes with a pay penalty – especially for those women who work part-time

Six in ten working mums with children either at nursery or primary school work part-time, as do half of those with older, secondary school age children. Just ten percent of dads work part-time. 

Most common complaints against employers

Earlier this year the TUC carried out a short online survey to find out the kind of treatment pregnant women and new mums had experienced, and its findings appear in The Pregnancy Test as the ten most common complaints against employers. For each complaint the report sets out how the employer is breaking the law. 

Five suggestions regarding changes that would improve the experiences of pregnant women and new mothers:

  • Employment tribunal fees should be abolished so women can afford to take their employers to court if they feel they’ve been treated unfairly because of their pregnancy or because they have recently become a mother. If employers know they are unlikely to be taken to tribunal they are likely to continue with their bad behaviour, says the TUC.
  • Employers should publish return-to-work rates to see how many new mums go back to their jobs and how many are still in post a year on. They should also carry out exit interviews with any women who feel unable to go back to work, and act on the findings.
  • The government should introduce better paid leave to allow dads to play a greater role in the care of their children and mothers a greater chance to progress at work.
  • Flexible working must become more widespread, and men should have as much chance to work in this way as women. Flexible working should be promoted at the point of recruitment and it should be easier for parents to challenge an employer who turns down their request to work flexibly.
  • Employers who are taken to a tribunal over a pregnancy or maternity-related complaint should be forced to act to improve their employment practices when they are found to have discriminated against a female employee.


The Pregnancy Test: Ending Discrimination at Work for New Mothers is available at: www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/pregnancytestreport.pdf


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