Britain’s leading employers unite to end pregnancy discrimination in workplaces

Published: 14 Sep 2016

The country’s biggest businesses are leading the fight against pregnancy and maternity discrimination that affects around 390,000 pregnant women and new mothers each year, by forming a new alliance to show employers how to attract, develop and retain women at work.

Major household names including Barclays, Royal Mail and BT Group are leading a coalition of businesses in the initiative ‘Working Forward – supporting pregnancy and maternity rights’, aiming to inspire other organisations to follow their example by working to eradicate discrimination from their businesses and make the best use of their female workforce.

The high-profile founding members will encourage businesses in their supply chains to sign up to the coalition and pledge to make their workplaces the best they can be for pregnant women and new mothers. The founders will share their knowledge, experience and good practice with businesses who sign up, as well as highlighting the economic benefits they get from retaining the talent and experience of their female employees.

With over 15 million women active in the UK labour market at any time, women make up half of the UK workforce. However, research shows more than two million women who are not working want to work and over one and half million women in work would like to do more hours. It’s claimed if women's participation in the labour market increased to roughly the same as men’s, it would add 10% to the size of the economy by 2030.

The business benefit is also clear with evidence showing top performing companies for gender diversity are 15% more likely to perform better financially than the average.

The members will help drive long-term positive change through actions such as nominating a gender equality champion at board level, training and supporting line managers, and promoting family friendly policies including advertising all jobs as open to flexible working where appropriate. These actions will help businesses begin to tackle the pressing challenges they face to reduce their pay gaps, and enable women to develop their careers within companies.

Working Forward, set up by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, follows its recent landmark research, carried out in conjunction with the former Department from Business, Innovation and Skills which highlighted that while the majority of employers say they are firm supporters of female staff during and after pregnancy and find it easy to comply with the law, three in four (77%) mothers say they have had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience at work.

David Isaac, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said:

“We can no longer accept women being unfairly treated at work because they are pregnant or on maternity leave. We are calling on employers to sign up to our initiative to commit to delivering equality and ensure working environments benefit everyone.

“Attracting, developing and retaining talent, regardless of gender, is absolutely critical for the UK economy and for our businesses. Companies that show a real commitment to this are not only doing the right thing but can also gain a competitive edge.

“Our Working Forward founding members all recognise the importance of women in their workforces. Together, we want to raise the bar across the business community and ultimately improve the experiences of employers and employees.”

‘Working Forward’ will be launched today at a Houses of Parliament event with speeches from: 

  • Caroline Dinenage, Minister for Women, Equalities and Early Years
  • Maria Miller, Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee
  • Angela Crawley, Shadow SNP spokesperson for Equalities, Women and Children
  • Cilla Snowball, Chair of the Women’s Business Council
  • Hannah Bardell, MP for Livingston
Business Minister Margot James said:

“I’m extremely encouraged that some of the UK’s largest businesses have committed to the EHRC’s new ‘Working Forward’ campaign and I urge other employers, large and small, to add their support. 

“As the Prime Minister has made clear, we are working to build an economy that works for all and ensuring workplaces are free from discrimination is vital to achieving that goal.”  

The campaign also has the backing of influential business bodies such as the CBI, Institute of Directors (IOD), the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), and the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).

The founding members are all recognised for leading the way in attracting, developing and retaining women in their workforces by adopting positive practice and progressive maternity policies.

The founding members of Working Forward are:

  • Barclays
  • BT Group
  • Royal Mail
  • Ford
  • John Lewis Partnership
  • Mitie
  • Nationwide Building Society
  • Transport for London

BT Group has a high return rate of women after maternity leave of 86% compared with the national average of 77%. This is in response to a company-wide commitment to supporting pregnant women and new mothers.

Marc Allera, Chief Executive of EE from the BT Group, said:

“As one of the UK’s largest employers and one that prides itself on being a great place to work, we are hugely supportive of this campaign. 

We are committed to creating a work environment that is fully supportive of pregnant women and new mothers and we’re proud to have a higher than average return to work rate of women after maternity leave of 86%. However we know there is more to do and that’s why we believe it's important for organisations to work together and share good practice to help eradicate discrimination from businesses.”

Royal Mail has trialled innovative ways to ensure all women, including pregnant women and new mothers, have access to relevant opportunities to build their careers and feel valued. This includes a regular survey of current and previous employees who have taken maternity leave in the last five years to understand and learn from their experiences, and the establishment of a new Parents and Carers Steering Group.

Jon Millidge, Director of Group HR at Royal Mail, said:

“Royal Mail is proud to be one of the founding members of Working Forward. Women are a crucial part of our workforce and this diversity is hugely important to us. As such we have made gender equality part of our business strategy.

“It is important that women who are pregnant, or that have recently returned from maternity leave, are valued for the skills they can offer, and while there is more to do, we believe an engaged and motivated female workforce gives us a business advantage.”

Barclays is recognised for its proactive approach to supporting employees to manage their career and family life through a peer-to-peer coaching programme offering career advice to women going on and returning from maternity or adoption leave.

Mark McLane, Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Barclays, said:

“We believe there is great value in a large business being able to step up and share best practice as this encourages the industry as a whole to improve. At Barclays, we’ve found that training and communication have had the most positive impact for colleagues, underpinned by policy and infrastructure.”

Notes to editors


Read the full pregnancy and maternity discrimination research findings.

  • If women's participation in the labour market increased to roughly the same as men’s, it would add 10% to the size of the economy by 2030: 
    Closing the Gender Pay Gap, Government Equalities Office, July 2015
  • Top performing companies for gender diversity are 15% more likely to perform better financially than the average:
    Diversity Matters, McKinsey, 2015

For more press information and interviews contact the Commission’s media office on 0161 829 8102, out of office hours 07767 272 818.

Press contact details

For more press information contact the Commission's media office on:

0161 829 8102