49% of pregnant women experience workplace discrimination

by Sarah Megginson14 Apr 2014
Opportunities for promotion get shelved; rewarding tasks get delegated to other staff; managers tell you to front up to work and “bring a bucket” to cope with morning sickness. These are just some of the scenarios that pregnant women routinely deal with at work.
It’s therefore no surprise that around half of Australian mothers confirm they’ve experienced discrimination in the workplace.
A survey of 2,000 women by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that 49 per cent of Australian mothers have experienced discrimination at work during pregnancy, during parental leave or on return to work.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick said women had shared shocking personal stories of discrimination with her, with many women reporting that they “felt they had no choice but to change their entire careers” as a result.
Many mothers experienced discrimination before the baby was even born. Such was the case for Sam Vujic, who was working as a receptionist and suffering terrible morning sickness.
“I’d had terrible all-day sickness for five months and I was told by my female boss, who'd never experienced morning sickness or similar, to come to work and ‘just bring a bucket’,” Vujic said.
Meanwhile Justine* was not-so-subtly blocked from applying for a promotion she was qualified and ready for, due to her growing bump. The mother-of-three was working in public service and mistakenly thought she would be “completely protected against this sort of thing”.
“I’ve had so many inappropriate things happen whilst being pregnant and returning from maternity leave, but the worst was when I was helping my boss with a new area of work ­– and when a new position came up to do the job full-time, he encouraged everyone else in my area except me to apply,” she said.
Justine brought it up during a one-on-one meeting, but her boss tried to sweep it under the carpet.
“I found out later he’d told my team leader that it wouldn't be appropriate for me to apply, because I was pregnant, even though he knew I was capable of the position,” she said.
“I'm due to go back to work at the end of the year and I’m starting to have anxiety already, as I’ll be working for the same manager.”
Melbourne HR officer, Natalie*, was in a similar boat when pregnant with her second child. She noticed that her manager was giving away a number of her tasks as her pregnancy progressed – even though she was quite competent and happy to do them.
“I never complained about the workload or stress, but the tasks kept dropping off to the point where I thought, why am I even here? I told him I was still capable, but he just said he was trying to make things easier for me, and that was that,” she said.
“Now that I’m on maternity leave, I’ve contacted my manager, who said he can't wait to have me back on board – except I won't necessarily be given my old job back, because it might not be in the best interests of the business!”
* Names changed.


  • by Hedi 14/04/2014 12:36:41 PM

    As a HR professional I never thought that this could happen to me either. I have a great Manager but even I got "restructured" into a different role while on maternity leave with more hours per week that I can't do because of my daycare arrangements. The only other thing on offer is piecemeal casual work with no security or regularlty of hours. With two kids, how is that evena choice? Even with the best of intentions some Managers don't realise the impact of their actions for pregnant women or those returning from maternity leave. I really resent those people who say that mothers made the choice to have children, etc, etc. That's true but if women stop having babies whose taxes will pay for your healthcare and pensions as you age?

  • by caca 14/04/2014 12:38:18 PM

    Something to remember is a year is a long time to be away from a business. If those keeping in touch days aren't used then naturally the business may have changed substantially while the person was on parental leave.
    In almost every instance I've seen that the parent has held out for 2 years without much contact and then either chooses to not return or wants to come back part-time. The problem is part-time for our type of business just doesn't work well and inevitably someone else will have additional duties (and in all of these cases has felt that because they do not have family responsibilities that they are actually being discriminated against).

    By the way, duties SHOULD be passed on slowly through someone's pregnancy so that questions can be asked/answered in advance and of course pregnancies are not always predictable so naturally the woman can go into early labour. I'm not sure why the person in the story would think of it as discrimination.

  • by Amanda 14/04/2014 12:54:27 PM

    I agree caca that a lot changes in a business in 1-2 years. I would add though that is that maternity leave isn't really like other leave. The women are already worried about juggling caring responsibilties while still holding on to their sense of self and the career that they worked hard for. Emotions and stress levels run very high at these times and Managers need to be tactful in how they address the needs of the business. I think you're right that it's not necessarily discrimination but I think that the way that these things are handled can sometimes bruise an already fragile ego.

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