Prime Minister Julia Gillard has asked the Human Rights Commission to look into workplace discrimination against women who have children.
The government has asked Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick to oversee an inquiry to measure discrimination against pregnant women, parents and those returning from parental leave.
The inquiry will look at the frequency of discrimination, what is driving it, and its consequences.
It follows figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in December which found of 357,500 working women with a child under two, 18.8% faced discrimination in the workplace and 29.3% left the workforce permanently while pregnant or after having their child.
Diversity strategy and compliance consultant Prue Gilbert told SmartCompany the inquiry is important because, fundamentally, women are discriminated against during and following pregnancy.
“They are not empowered to negotiate their way back to work and they are not supported,” Gilbert says.
“Managers have no experience in managing flexible work arrangements and most businesses continue to have a culture of face time, so they can’t see the benefits of working flexibly.”
Gilbert says women who have been discriminated against during or after pregnancy should have a right of recourse under the Fair Work Act for when flexible work arrangements are affected.
“There is also the common perception that once you have a baby, you go to baby land, and you are not interested in your career anymore,” Gilbert says.
Sarah Charlesworth, associate professor at the University of South Australia and principal research fellow at the Centre for Work + Life, told SmartCompany pregnancy discrimination is a “persistent problem”.
“It would be really good if the enquiry can quantify the extent and the nature of the discrimination that women experience when they become pregnant, remain on leave and when they return to work,” she says.
“It’s a form of discrimination that when it happens to you, you are at your most vulnerable, so there is a concern that it is possibly underreported.”
Peter Strong, executive director of Council of Small Business of Australia, told SmartCompany he hopes the enquiry will look specifically at small business.
“In small business, we are standing next to the people we are working with, so discrimination does not happen very often,” he says.
“One of the issues we would like to see investigated is women who run a business and are pregnant and are discriminated against, do they have trouble getting a bank loan? These sorts of things are always left off these reviews.”
The inquiry’s interim report is due in October, with a final report due in May next year.