Discrimination Against Working Parents: The Facts

Discrimination Against Working Parents: The Facts

A landmark new report by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has revealed that almost half of Australian women experience some kind of workplace discrimination during their pregnancy, while they are on leave and/or after they return to work.

In the investigation also showed that 27 per cent of fathers and partners also experienced discrimination in the workplace during pregnancy, parental leave or when returning to work after becoming a parent.

In a scathing summary of the situation the AHRS says that Australian workplaces still overwhelmingly view working while pregnant as a privilege not a right.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick said the review included an Australia-wide consultation process and a national prevalence survey. Australia is one of only a handful of countries in the world to have undertaken such a survey and Ms Broderick said the results paint a gloomy picture:

“It provides indisputable evidence that pregnancy/return to work discrimination continues to be widespread and has a cost – not just to women, working parents and their families – but also to workplaces and the national economy.”

More than 2000 mothers and 1000 fathers were involved in the survey and many spoke of the devastating impacts of discrimination on their health, economic security and their family.

In the words of one woman:

“I would describe my experiences during pregnancy, whilst on parental leave and on returning to work as harrowing, disappointing and probably the worst experience of my life.

I spent much of my pregnancy feeling anxious (and sometimes in tears), despite being thrilled about the pregnancy and being physically well. I felt powerless, vulnerable and fearful about my job security and couldn’t understand why I was being treated so badly, especially given my unquestionable commitment to the organisation over the previous seven years.”

The National Review provides evidence of the affects of this discrimination and showed that 32 per cent of all mothers who were discriminated against at some point went to look for another job or resigned. Further, almost one in five (18 per cent) mothers indicated that they were made redundant or that their jobs were restructured, that they were dismissed or that their contract was not renewed during their pregnancy, when they requested or took parental leave, or when they returned to work.

Speaking to the ABC Ms Broderick said no sector was immune from discrimination.

“I spoke to women who had roles on a factory floor, through to the most senior executives, the most senior medical specialists in this country, and it was pervasive across all levels and all sectors,” Ms Broderick said.

“I think what disturbed me most was almost the inevitability of it. It was almost as if well, ‘I just have to put up with this because this is part of the landscape’.

Ms Broderick says the prevalence of discrimination in the workplace limits women’s participation in paid work but that is also negatively affects the productivity of businesses.

“Addressing it is not only a human rights imperative, but also an organisational priority. It is critical to the growth of both a strong economy and a cohesive society,” she said.

Commissioner Broderick acknowledged that some employers found managing these issues difficult, particularly the uncertainty surrounding pregnancy and return to work. In the words of one employer:

“The first thing is that you try to be very excited on behalf of the person who’s telling you. Secretly what you’re [thinking] is how the hell am I going to replace this person for the next year? With the best intentions in the world not to discriminate in any way, how can you avoid being concerned: how am I going to run this company and meet my objectives in the next year or two?”

Despite the gloomy statistics, the Review found that many employers were putting dynamic and leading strategies in place to overcome barriers and support their employees. These strategies are highlighted as leading edge in the report.

The AHRC makes a number of recommendations in the report and these are directed towards workplaces, government and the wider Australian community in recognition of the fact that the wider community will benefit by building more supportive workplaces and increasing women’s participation in paid work.

The recommendations focus on providing information and improving awareness about an employer’s legal obligations and an employee’s legal rights with regards to workplace discrimination.

“This is an approach intended to help plug the gap that allows this discrimination to take place – the gap between the legal framework and the implementation of the law.”

The recommendations also emphasise the need for strategies and approaches designed to help dismantle stereotypes and drive cultural change within workplaces, as well as the importance of further monitoring, evaluation and research to shape effective action.

“Research and modelling shows that if businesses and other employers are able to retain women and men who are becoming new parents by eradicating pregnancy/ return to work discrimination, there will be a considerable economic dividend to both them and the wider economy,” said Ms Broderick.

“It’s a human issue first. Workplace discrimination has a damaging impact on the lives of parents. But by working together, we can achieve positive results for all.”

You can view the report and recommendations here.


This Better Workplace Bulletin was  first Published in August 2014