Three out of four Scottish working mothers say they’ve experienced pregnancy and maternity discrimination

Published: 22 Mar 2016

New research published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission today suggests that around three quarters of pregnant women and new mothers in Scotland, the equivalent of over 30, 000 women,  experience negative or potentially  discriminatory treatment  at work each year.

This potential discrimination described by three out of four working mothers in Scotland, includes dismissal, a risk or impact on their health or welfare, financial loss or being harassed by their line manager or colleagues.

The Commission is today publishing wide-ranging proposals for change, including ending women being asked whether they intend to have children in job interviews as it publishes its final research report today on experiences of pregnancy and maternity discrimination at work.

The comprehensive research, carried out in partnership with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, shows despite 77% of working mothers across GB reporting potentially discriminatory or negative experiences, only around a quarter (28%) raised the issue with their employer, only 3% went through their employer’s internal grievance procedure, and less than 1% pursued a claim to the employment tribunal. 

The survey of more than 3,000 mothers and 3,000 employers shows a range of reasons for this including the financial cost of pursuing a claim, fear of negative repercussions at work, lack of information about their rights and stress and tiredness. Since the introduction in 2013 of tribunal fees of up to £1,200, the number of sex discrimination cases has dropped by 76% and pregnancy-related cases fell by 50%1.

The research also reveals the majority of employers (70%) thought a woman should declare at recruitment stage if they were pregnant and a quarter thought that it was reasonable to ask women of childbearing age about their plans to have children at interview.

However, nearly every Scottish employer questioned (94%) believed supporting pregnant women was in the best interests of their business, suggesting some kind of communication breakdown between the employers’ intention and the employees’ experience.

These latest findings are an extension of last year’s research into pregnancy and maternity discrimination based on a survey of more than 3,000 mothers and 3,000 employers across GB. Following this research, the Commission in Scotland worked with the Scottish Government which resulted in their recently announced commitments designed to tackle the problem.

The Commission has called for Governments in Holyrood and Westminster to:

  • take more effective steps to prevent employers asking during the recruitment process about a woman’s pregnancy or about her intention to have children;
  • explore the feasibility of a collective insurance scheme to support small and medium sized employers in providing enhanced pay and cover for maternity leave based on a successful model used in Denmark;
  • make changes to the employment tribunal fee system to ensure that fees are not a barrier to accessing justice for pregnant women and new mothers;
  • consider increasing the time limit from three to six months for a woman to bring an employment tribunal case involving pregnancy and maternity discrimination

Alastair Pringle, Scotland Director of the Equality and Human Rights Commission said:

'These findings show the full scale of the discrimination that working mothers face in Scotland. Urgent action now needs to be taken to make the changes required to end pregnancy and maternity discrimination. We want to make workplaces fairer for everyone and get rid of outdated practices like asking women whether they intend to have children during job interviews. For Scottish businesses to thrive, they need to harness the talents, skills and experience of all employees. We are calling on employers, regulatory bodies and the voluntary sector to make vital changes needed to improve the lived experiences of British workplaces so they are the best they can be for everyone. Our conversations with the Scottish Government have resulted in the very encouraging commitments announced last month. These show the leadership for change that is needed to create a positive workplace that supports pregnant women and women returning from maternity leave. The Scottish Governments’ commitment to removing fees for Employment Tribunals when the matter is devolved is particularly helpful. We look forward to working together to deliver these commitments for the benefit of both employers and working women. We don’t think it’s difficult to get this right and believe the solution is mostly about communication, not cost. We also want to underline the huge benefit to the economy and to businesses themselves. This isn’t just an equality issue; it’s a financial one too. For the Scottish economy to flourish it needs to make the most of everyone’s skills. For businesses we know that recruitment is costly and that happy workforces are more productive, meaning it’s cost effective for everyone to get this right.'

The Commission is also making several recommendations to prevent discrimination, including;

  • A joint communications campaign between Governments, the Commission and business leaders to drive attitudinal and behavioural change by promoting the economic benefits of unlocking and retaining the talent of pregnant women and new mothers;
  • Improving the advice and information available to help employers and employees understand their rights and obligations; and
  • Improving health and safety management in the workplace so women are not forced to choose between their job and their health or the health of their unborn child.

Other top line Scottish findings include;

  • Almost half of Scottish mothers (46%) described a negative impact on their employment opportunity, status or job security including: not being informed about promotion opportunities, being denied training opportunities, threatened with dismissal or put under pressure to hand in their notice or leave;
  • Half of mothers described a negative impact on their career, work status or job security including not being informed about promotion opportunities, being denied training opportunities, being threatened with dismissal or put under pressure to hand in their notice which, if scaled up to the general population, could affect 210,000 mothers a year across GB
  • A desire for flexible working was a common theme across the whole of GB. Around two in five mothers (38%) would have liked a flexible working practice that they did not request. The most common reason Scottish mothers gave for not making a request was they thought it would not be approved (66%) and 29% also said they were worried about their colleagues’ reaction.
  • Almost 1 in 5 (18%) of Scottish employers asked, said they felt it was reasonable to ask prospective employees about their plans to have children at an interview.
  • Around 1 in 11 women (9%) in Scotland were either dismissed, made redundant or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave.
  • Around 1 in 5 Scottish mothers (19%) have experienced verbal harassment or negative comments at work.
  • 10% of women across GB were discouraged by their employer from attending antenatal appointments.


  • Over 9 out of 10 Scottish employers (94%) agree that pregnant women and those returning from maternity leave are just as committed to their work as their colleagues.
  • Two thirds of women across GB (67%) felt their employer supported them willingly during pregnancy and when they returned to work.
  • 93% of Scottish employers felt the statutory rights of their pregnant employees were important.

In February 2016 the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) welcomed the Scottish Governments  announcement of a number of commitments which will help to tackle the problem of discrimination faced by pregnant women and new mothers every year. These included

  • Setting up a new working group to create guidelines for employers to ensure best practice on recruitment, retention and development of pregnant workers;
  • Strengthening employer advice to ensure that work environments are safe and healthy for pregnant women and new mothers, including providing employment rights information and;
  • Improving public monitoring and reporting of pregnancy and maternity under the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) to identify if and where women were leaving their jobs after maternity or experiencing problems with training or development.

Notes to editors

For more press information, Scottish case studies (general employer and employee quotes from the research are below) and interviews contact Chris Oswald on 07846889425.

Read the full report.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission commissioned the research in partnership with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The research company IFF Research Ltd interviewed 3,254 mothers with a child under 2 years old and 3,034 workplaces across the UK in the largest ever survey of its kind.

Discrimination at work against pregnant women and those on maternity leave is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. It is unlawful for an employer to treat a woman unfavourably because she is pregnant, is ill because of her pregnancy, is on maternity leave, has taken maternity leave or has tried or intends to take maternity leave.

Examples of discrimination include:

  • Making a woman redundant because she is pregnant, or on maternity leave
  • Not offering the same training or promotion opportunities to a woman because she is pregnant or on maternity leave
  • Dismissing a woman because of pregnancy-related sickness
  • Dismissing a woman on maternity leave shortly before she is due to return to work (or after she returns) and keeping the person covering her maternity leave on instead
  • Refusing a pregnant employee reasonable time off for ante-natal appointments.

Please visit here for the Code of Practice on Employment

Examples of case study quotes from research interviews

Quotes from mothers

Health and safety risks:

Sales assistant for coffee shop chain, earning £5,000–£9,999 a year, aged 20–24

'I remember once [my supervisor] asked me to bring some milk up from the fridges downstairs and it was heavy. "No, I said I can’t I’m seven months pregnant, I’ll hurt myself", and she said: "Look you’re only pregnant, you’re not poorly."'

Risk to health:

Retail supervisor, earning £10,000–£19,999 a year, aged 20–24

'There was no risk assessment done or anything like that. I was still required to move things that I probably shouldn’t have moved or lifted or whatever. I just kind of got on with it. I know I was stupid…I was sent to another store to help out to run that store because one of the managers was off. I actually ended up doing too much [lifting] and ended up having a trip to the hospital.'

Effect of external advice:

Sales assistant for coffee shop chain, earning £5,000–£9,999 a year, aged 20–24

'It was only when I sort of said, “Well no, I’m going to take this further, I’m going to go to Citizens Advice, I’m going to put a complaint in” that they said, “Right OK then, we’ll average out your hours and we will give you your maternity leave”.'

Negative attitudes:

Regional manager for publishing company, earning £30,000 – £39,999 a year, aged 30–34

'They had not heard of [hyperemesis gravidarum] before. Eventually one of the senior managers turned round and said, because I think Kate [Middleton] was pregnant then or there was something in the newspaper about it and he was, "You’ve got that" and the penny finally dropped that it wasn’t me just skiving off or trying to make things difficult.'

Positive experience:

Teacher earning £30-39k aged 30-34

'They saw me as a person, as more than just a professional and yet still professional. There was never any suggestion that I would be any less capable when I was pre having a baby, when I was pregnant or afterwards. . . I still love my work and I still have a joyful time at home with my little girl! And I feel very privileged in that because the majority of my female friends aren’t in that position. It’s because of the treatment, about the way I was treated and the way I’ve been encouraged professionally, since coming back, that it made motherhood and professional life balance perfectly…'

Quotes from employers

Positive attitudes:

250+ employees, third sector, Arts Culture and Leisure

'It takes a long time to train someone up and understand how the whole thing fits together, so to lose someone is a pain in the neck – you’d rather retain them…We try to be flexible . . . and create contracts that will work for people when they’ve had children. It definitely helps with retention . . . They know they’ll be listened to if they want to adjust their contract, we’ll do our best to do that.'

Attitude to training:

5-9 employees, third sector, Arts, Culture and Leisure

'[Have they had any training?] No. I had some in my previous job and probably I’m the one that actually needs it. I could probably do with a brush up, but it’s not high up on my list of training needs.'

Attitude to recruitment:

100-249 employees, private sector, Hotels and Restaurants 

'I have had one instance where an employee started and then announced they were pregnant a couple of months later. I felt a bit angry, because I was going to have to do it [recruitment] again. I just felt a bit time-wasting, having spent all that time choosing someone.'

Press contact details

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

0161 829 8102