Pregnancy and parental discrimination remains a critical concern in Australia, new research has found. How can HR help to create a more inclusive environment for new and soon-to-be parents?
An ongoing national review of pregnant and working parents conducted by the University of South Australia (UniSA) has unveiled concerning levels of discrimination against this cohort.
Among the most alarming findings from the research, led by UniSA Research Fellow Dr Rachael Potter, is that more than 60 per cent of new mothers said their opinions were frequently ignored at work, they felt excluded and were burdened with unmanageable workloads when they first returned to work after parental leave.
The review, which kicked off early this year and has surveyed over 650 pregnant women and new parents so far, also found that a quarter of women had not been provided with appropriate breastfeeding facilities at their workplace. Meanwhile, almost one in five were refused requests to work flexible hours or from home. This is especially significant given that employers now have new legal obligations to consider flexible work requests from pregnant women, as part of the measures introduced in June this year by the Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill.
“We’ve looked at a broad range of types of discrimination on a spectrum of severity. In most categories, there are quite high percentages of people experiencing discrimination or disadvantage,” says Potter.
“It’s even the most basic needs – [for example], there’s quite a high percentage of pregnant women who were denied [extra] toilet breaks. It’s things like that where you’d think, ‘Surely we’ve moved beyond this.’ But it’s still being reported.”
A gap between legislation and practice
Pregnancy and parental discrimination at work was made illegal in Australia almost four decades ago with the introduction of the the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, and is also unlawful under the Fair Work Act 2009 and most state laws.
It’s disheartening that almost a quarter of pregnant women surveyed said they felt they needed to hide their pregnant stomach at work, and 38 per cent of mothers reported receiving negative or offensive remarks for taking time off work to care for a sick child.
“I was told I wouldn’t want to return to work as I would be ‘clucky’,” said one survey respondent. “My career was severely impacted by my pregnancy. I was forced to give up my team leader role.”
“I was bullied upon my return and made to lift heavy kegs and alcohol cases,” said another. “The stress affected my breastmilk, and I was made to express it in the toilet.”
Potter says that urgent action is needed to bridge this gap between policy and practice.
“There needs to be better regulation, but also education around what’s expected,” she says.
“We have noticed that a lot of the male [respondents] haven’t had as much leave that they would like, and they haven’t been able to access flexible work.” – Dr Rachael Potter, Research Fellow, University of South Australia
“[There are] people having to express milk standing up in a corner of a room with doors that don’t lock. There’s no one sending a message that that’s not okay.”
One of the areas where education is most crucial is around parental leave entitlements, she says. Three in 10 pregnant women surveyed said they received no information about their upcoming leave entitlements, which employers are legally obliged to provide.
This was also an issue reported by the new and expecting fathers surveyed in the research.
“We have noticed that a lot of the male [respondents] haven’t had as much leave that they would like, and they haven’t been able to access flexible work,” says Potter.
“Some men have actually been punished for requesting it, or treated differently. It’s still very unequal, and I think [gender] stereotypes definitely apply, unfortunately.”
Read HRM’s article on the gender gap in the uptake of flexible work here.
To address this, Potter recommends increased guidance for managers on the required provisions for parents, as well as ensuring employees themselves are cognisant of their legal rights, so they are empowered to advocate for fair treatment.
Building a culture of inclusion for parents
As well as the legal imperative for employers to support working parents, encouraging a workplace culture that is genuinely inclusive of parents and caregivers is a win-win for the wellbeing of the employees themselves and the wider organisation.
Potter’s research indicates that one of the biggest barriers to achieving this is the lack of open communication with working parents to determine a tailored approach that suits them. This is evidenced by the lack of consultation on leave entitlements, and also by the finding that a significant proportion of women (22 per cent) had their tasks or job altered against their wishes while on maternity leave
“Obviously, the organisation has to keep progressing and some changes will have to be made,” she says.
“But when there [could be] a significant change to their role, communicating with the person before they go on leave is so important. Because if you explain why this might need to happen, that automatically empowers that person to know it’s not a personal issue or because they’re a parent.”
Employers should also establish up-front whether the employee wishes to maintain some level of communication with their team while they are on parental leave, she says. While some might prefer to disconnect from work entirely, others may prefer to receive updates about important changes, so they’re not caught off-guard when they return.
“But certainly, if there’s a major change to your role, you should be consulted about it. If that [doesn’t happen], it places that person in a really vulnerable position because they’re already going through that transition of becoming a parent,” she says. “They’re exhausted, they don’t have the resources to fight the change and they often get dismissed.”
When it comes to ensuring that employees are empowered to balance work and family commitments, Potter suggests paying close attention to their needs and collaborating with them on a tailored return-to-work plan that suits their preferences and the demands of their role.
This, along with communicating your willingness to support employees through the transition, can help HR and employers to build a culture where pregnancy and parental discrimination are far less likely to occur.
“[The behaviour of] senior management is also super important,” says Potter. “If they’re modelling that behaviour and those values, that’s going to set the tone for the organisation.”
There is a legal duty of care for employers and management to take all reasonable steps to eliminate
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