Why the U.K. Sucks in Gender Diversity at Work - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Why the U.K. Sucks in Gender Diversity at Work

Why the U.K. Sucks in Gender Diversity at Work

By Gemma Tetlow


Because gender-based discrimination can be tenacious.

By Gemma Tetlow

The Equality and Human Rights Commission, the public body charged with enforcing laws that protect people’s rights in the United Kingdom, released figures recently from a survey by pollster YouGov of managers’ attitudes toward pregnancy and maternity discrimination. The poll of 1,106 business decision-makers, conducted last autumn, suggested that many employers were “living in the dark ages,” the commission said.

In fact:

More than one-third of private sector employers in the UK believe it is acceptable to ask female job candidates about their plans to have children, even though the practice has been illegal since 1975.

“We should all know very well that it is against the law not to appoint a woman because she is pregnant or might become pregnant,” says Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the EHRC. “Yet we also know women routinely get asked questions around family planning in interviews. It’s clear that many employers need more support to better understand the basics of discrimination law and the rights of pregnant women and new mothers.”

Women have been protected by law from discrimination at work because of pregnancy or maternity for more than 40 years. But research by the government’s business department and the EHRC in 2015 found the number of women reporting this kind of discrimination increased between 2005 and 2015. That led to renewed calls for the government to do more to help employers understand their responsibilities and protect pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace.

Half of managers 55 and older thought women who had more than one pregnancy while in the same job “can be a burden to their team” …

The latest survey just published by the EHRC suggests a significant minority of employers still view pregnant women and new mothers negatively. Two-fifths of employers said pregnancy in the workplace puts “an unnecessary cost burden” on the organization. Just over half of employers said that other employees in their company feel resentful toward women who are pregnant or on maternity leave.


The survey found more negative attitudes toward pregnant women and new mothers among small- and medium-size employers (SME) — those with fewer than 250 employees — than large employers. Just over a third of large employers thought it was reasonable to ask women during the recruitment process if they had young children, compared with more than half of SMEs.

Male respondents were also more likely to exhibit negative attitudes. For example, 35 percent of male respondents said pregnant women and new mothers were generally less interested in their careers than their colleagues, compared with 22 percent of female respondents.

Older respondents were also more likely to report negative attitudes than younger managers, with those ages 35 to 44 being the least likely to display a discriminatory attitude. Half of managers 55 and older thought women who had more than one pregnancy while in the same job “can be a burden to their team,” compared with 38 percent of managers ages 35 to 44.

Despite the prevalence of a variety of beliefs that are in breach of equalities legislation, 76 percent of employers agreed with the premise that “supporting pregnant women and those on maternity leave is in the best interests of the organization.”

“There are still far too many employers who don’t understand or respect employment law as it relates to pregnant women and new mothers,” says Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the London-based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the professional body for human resources and people development. “Investment in manager capability is essential to challenge unlawful, shortsighted and unethical practice.”

By Gemma Tetlow

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2020.

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