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ACT Liberal Giulia Jones calls for inquiry into pregnancy discrimination in the workplace

Discrimination against pregnant women is real, belittling and a blight on society, Liberal backbencher Giulia Jones told the ACT Assembly on Wednesday, calling for an investigation into the harassment of pregnant women in the workplace.

As the mother of four young children she had experienced it herself, Mrs Jones said. While pregnant, she had to put up with comments such as "Don't you have a TV?", or "My wife was a better woman; she didn't work, stayed home with the kids" and "Was it planned?"

Upset: Canberra Liberals MLA Giulia Jones says changes to paid parental leave appall her.
Upset: Canberra Liberals MLA Giulia Jones says changes to paid parental leave appall her. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

At eight months' pregnant, her boss sent her to a cafe to buy a coffee when walking wasn't easy; on her return to the office she was sent to buy her boss a new toothbrush.

"There is unspoken pressure put on women," she said. "If you want a promotion or to get on in your workplace then you had better plan your pregnancy very carefully or even better, think hard about putting it off to the never-never."

Mrs Jones sparked an Assembly debate on the issue on Wednesday.

Mrs Jones said while she had found it very tough at times, she had "ploughed on". She took three months off with her first baby, six months with the second, six weeks annual leave at half pay with the third, and after the fourth left work and took five months off before starting her campaign for election in 2012. In the year before her election, she did some night work as a cleaner to stay on top of the bills.

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It was almost impossible for young couples in Canberra to survive on one income, and money was at the core of many relationship breakdowns, Mrs Jones said. Closely related to that was a woman's capacity to bring income into the household.

"There are many women who just get to the point of thinking that the practicalities of being full-time the mother of your child or children and full-time at the boss's wants are just too much of a load."

Pregnancy discrimination could be subtle and hidden, disguised in jokes, and difficult for women to talk about, she said.

"We should not tolerate it and should work to change such culture," she said, calling for the government to collect statistics on women's experience of pregnancy in the workplace, and for a report from the Human Rights Commissioner. 

Mrs Jones quoted a report from the national Sex Discrimination Commissioner which found one in two mothers had experienced discrimination in the workplace during their pregnancy, with 22 per cent of them giving up on work altogether. Fathers also experienced discrimination, with 27 per cent reporting discrimination related to parental leave.

"We need to have a new mentality towards children and towards the work parents do at home," she said. "Children are not just a private good but a public good as well ... Babies are a normal part of women's lives; women bearing children is completely normal."

Mrs Jones called for a change of culture, which she said would mean becoming "comfortable with a little chaos".

"We must stop looking down on mothers and put them up in the place they belong, revered as the strongest and hardest working most selfless women in our society."

Attorney-General Simon Corbell said the Human Rights Commissioner already reported on pregnancy discrimination, and he said it was illegal for an employer to discriminate against a worker on the basis of marital status, family or carer responsibilities or pregnancy.

The government did its utmost to support women in the workplace and the government was working to eliminate discrimination across the board, he said.

Greens Member Shane Rattenbury said workplace discrimination on the basis of pregnancy or family commitments was untenable.

The attitude that raising a family was a privilege and not a right was also untenable. People raising families were not looking for a favour, but to have their rights respected, he said.

The level of discrimination reported by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner had been extraordinary, he said.

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