I am haunted by the words of a woman whom I will call Sonja. I heard from her during my National Review into Pregnancy, Parental Leave and Return to Work Discrimination. She was describing the response from her manager to her becoming pregnant.
“Well, you will need to leave,” her manager said. “This is very inconvenient for the organisation – you should have told us you were planning this – have you considered [an] abortion?”
This simple statement encapsulates the many struggles still faced by workers today who are pregnant and who take parental leave. It is a struggle to have a successful working life and a family; to continue to be a “part of” the organisation at which they work.
Our national review, being launched today, is the most comprehensive this country has ever seen. It considered the experiences and contributions of employees, organisations and government. It included an Australia-wide consultation process and a national prevalence survey, which Australia is one of the few countries to have undertaken.
We have found indisputable evidence that discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, parental leave and return to work from parental leave continues to be widespread. We also found that it has a cost – and not just to women, working parents and their families. It has a very real cost to workplaces and the national economy.
One in two mothers and more than a quarter of the fathers and partners surveyed reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace at some point during pregnancy, parental leave or on return to work.
I am talking about women from all walks of life - from manufacturing floors to the highest echelons of the business and medical worlds. No sector was immune. Women reported being bullied, demeaned and victimised. In the most serious cases we were told of women miscarrying, of people suffering severe psychological trauma from stress and of people losing their homes because discrimination pushed one wage earner out of work. These stories were not uncommon.
This discrimination is real and it is prevalent.
At the same time, we found that many employers were struggling to manage issues of pregnancy/return to work discrimination. Many are committed to supporting their workers, but are unclear on how to best do this. The good news is that others are putting strategies in place to overcome these concerns. One employer we spoke to said flexibility was ''both a productivity and people imperative”. This view is reflective of many.
The opportunity cost to business and our economy of allowing this form of discrimination to persist, and to push people out of work, is considerable.
One of the biggest reasons that this form of discrimination continues to flourish is that employees do not know their rights and employers are not clear on their obligations. There is a gap between the strong legislative framework that exists and the knowledge and ability of people to make it happen on the ground.
For this reason, we need to ensure clear, comprehensive and consistent information is supplied to employees and employers. I am pleased that the federal government will provide funding for the Human Rights Commission to develop resources for workplaces to manage and support working parents through pregnancy, parental leave, and on return to work
It also follows that organisations should examine their systems and structures to identify and '‘out'’ harmful stereotypes and their use. They should remove these attitudes and biases from their policies and procedures, as well as reinforce good practice through training and educating managers and employees.
At the same time, we need some strengthening of the existing legal standards. For example, a positive duty on employers to reasonably accommodate a request for flexible working arrangements by pregnant workers, or those returning from parental leave, should be introduced. Also, employee breaks should be accepted for the purposes of breastfeeding or expressing milk.
Finally, for all this to work – as with anything – monitoring, evaluation and research are critical.
Implementation of our recommendations will create workplace cultures in which parents can thrive. It will deliver much improved outcomes for everyone involved.
These are not huge imposts. But they will deliver for both employees and employers as well as for our economy.
Elizabeth Broderick is Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner.