Eye-opening and heartbreaking: "One in two women report experiencing discrimination in the workplace during their pregnancy."

Eye-opening and heartbreaking: "One in two women report experiencing discrimination in the workplace during their pregnancy." Photo: Louise Kennerley

“You try to be very excited on behalf of the person who is telling you (they are pregnant) but secretly, what you’re saying behind it is 'how the hell am I going replace this person for the next year?’… With the best will in the world not to discriminate in any way, I don’t think you can hide that emotion…”

This is a real quote from a real businessperson struggling with a real issue.

Parental leave, and by extension, pregnancy, is never far from the headlines these days. As are stories of discrimination, harassment and bullying.

No matter where you are employed in Australia, you will have worked with women who become pregnant, have a child and take parental leave for the start of their child’s life. Increasingly, partners also take leave to be involved at this special time. After leave, the mother or partner either returns to work or does not, depending on the circumstances.

Less well known is the level of discrimination individuals often face in the workplace.

Do you really know why that person didn’t return to work?

How many times have you heard people make disparaging remarks when a woman announces she is expecting a child? Believe me, remarks are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of discrimination in relation to pregnancy, parental leave and returning to work. Many people find they are demoted or lose their job. Others have more complex and harrowing experiences of discrimination.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has just completed two national surveys and a consultation process aimed at ascertaining the prevalence of this form of discrimination and its different manifestations.

It has been at times a shocking and disturbing journey to discover the treatment and attitudes people are subjected to in some workplaces simply because they decide to take the perfectly natural step of beginning a family.

We found one in two women report experiencing discrimination in the workplace during their pregnancy, after requesting or while on parental leave, or on returning to work.

As a result, the vast majority of these women (84%) experienced negative impacts on their mental health (such as stress and marked reductions in confidence and self-esteem), physical health, families, finances, career and job opportunities.

This is affecting women from all walks of life – from those in casual jobs or on manufacturing lines to those who are specialist medical practitioners or senior organisational managers. They all use words like "disempowered", "demeaning", and "demoralising" on an alarmingly regular basis. So many said to me "you start doubting yourself and your ability" because they were being pushed out of jobs simply because they were pregnant, took parental leave or wanted to return to work part time. I heard from women who felt they had no choice but to change their entire careers as a result of the discrimination.

It gets worse. Others told of experiencing a nervous breakdown as a result of their treatment in the workplace. In our consultations we met families who had lost their homes because of the intimidation that had forced one wage earner out of work, making them unable to pay their mortgage. We heard from women who had miscarried from the stress. It was not uncommon to find that women were made to breastfeed or express milk in a toilet. One pregnant woman was denied toilet breaks until she wet herself at the cash register where she was working. In one horrifying account, we met a woman who was told she would only be able to keep her job if she had a termination.

This discrimination is not just restricted to the mother. We found a quarter (27%) of the fathers and partners we surveyed experienced discrimination in the workplace related to parental leave or return to work. This is despite the fact that 85% of them took less than four weeks leave – less time than their annual leave allocation.

It is both eye-opening and heartbreaking to appreciate, and gather evidence of the detrimental impact of a discrimination that is inflicted on people for something as normal as wanting to start a family.

But this is a not a simple or a one-sided story. There are also the very real challenges faced by employers and business in managing pregnancy and parental leave in their workplaces.

 This discrimination will have a negative effect on the retention of women in our workplaces.

And the very real costs of this discrimination are not only borne by the parents and families involved. It costs our workplaces in productivity. It costs our economy. And it costs our society as a whole.

This is why research such as ours is so important. We have now established a solid evidence-base of prevalence. And, reassuringly, our review has also witnessed some impressive employer practices and strategies used to address these challenges. It presents us with a starting block from which we can devise approaches to remove this blight from our workplaces, from our economy and from family lives. We will release a full report mid-year that will help articulate this direction.

Elizabeth Broderick is Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner.