Research released today by the Australian Human Rights Commission reveals one in two women in Australia (49%) reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace during their pregnancy, parental leave or on return to work.
The Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review surveyed 2000 mothers and 1000 fathers.
The research found while prevalent at all stages, discrimination was more commonly reported as occurring upon return to work, with 35% of women indicating they had experienced discrimination at this time.
This was followed by 32% experiencing discrimination when requesting, or while on, parental leave and 27% experiencing discrimination during pregnancy.
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The research also found that discrimination takes many different forms ranging from negative attitudes and comments through to dismissal and that many women experience multiple forms of discrimination.
As a result of this discrimination, 84% of mothers reported a significant negative impact related to mental health (including stress, and a negative impact on their confidence and self-esteem), physical health, career and job opportunities, financial stability and their families.
This has a negative impact of women’s workforce participation with high numbers of women having to leave the workforce or change their employer.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick said commonly reported types of discrimination women experienced during pregnancy, or when on parental leave, included reductions in salary, missing out on training, professional development and promotional opportunities.
The most common types of discrimination women reported experiencing on returning to work after parental leave included negative comments about breastfeeding or working part-time or flexibly and being denied requests to work flexibly.
“The major conclusion we can draw from this data is that discrimination has a cost – to women, their families, to business and to the Australian economy and society as a whole,” Broderick said in a statement.
Diversity strategy and compliance consultant Prue Gilbert told SmartCompany although the Fair Work Commission provides some protection for pregnant women this is not enough.
“Laws that are intended to protect continue to serve those with the deepest pockets – all too often lawyers are permitted to appear on behalf of defendants, or complainants are already vulnerable financially – they are either about to take leave or are on leave,” she says.
“Unfortunately I believe the current ‘business case’ for gender equality has become too narrow, and far too focused on the direct contribution to the bottom line.”
Gilbert says businesses need to remember they are part of the economic fabric of society.
She also notes the high degree of pregnancy related discrimination towards blue collar women uncovered in the research that effectively breaches occupational health and safety laws.
“Of the 27% of mothers who experienced discrimination during pregnancy, 48% said it was OHS related and only half of them had a health and safety risk carried out,” she says.
“This directly exposes directors and executives and has criminal sanctions.”