Inquiry into 'Victorian' attitude to pregnant women at work

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The Independent Online

The Equal Opportunities Commission is launching an investigation into discrimination against pregnant women at work.

A new report shows increasing evidence that women are being sacked, docked pay or demoted by unenlightened employers - just for being pregnant. It follows a flurry of complaints from women, many of which have ended up being successfully pursued in employment tribunals. The EOC's helpline receives more calls on this than any other issue, with 2,000 calls on pregnancy discrimination in 2001.

The EOC investigation is being carried out with the full backing of the Government.

Patricia Hewitt, the women's minister and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, has warned the report will clamp down on "Victorian management practices" and "introduce employers like this to the facts of life in the 21st century".

The EOC is concerned that many employers remained prejudiced against pregnant women, despite it being illegal to dismiss someone for maternity-related issues.

While they might not have lost their jobs, some women have reported their promotion chances suffering, changes being made to their salaries, being more likely to be criticised or face disciplinary action, as well as being subject to unhelpful alterations to their shift patterns. Others, returning to work after having a baby, found they struggled to regain their pre-maternity employment status.

Ministers and campaigners believe such actions by employers seriously undermine attempts to bring in family-friendly working practices in the UK. The EOC report is launched tomorrow at the start of National Pregnancy Week. The organiser, the baby charity Tommy's, has also drawn up a list of approved companies, which have put in place policies to make sure women are not discriminated against.

One woman who experienced discrimination while pregnant was Tania Sullivan, 28, from Gillingham, Kent. She went on to sue her employer, Sutton-based Ambition Recruitment, winning £2,500 damages in June.

Mrs Sullivan, a mother of four, pursued legal proceedings after Ambition refused to alter her shifts while she was heavily pregnant. Struggling to look after three young children and with an 80-mile round trip to work each day, she was forced to take a week off through stress-related illness.

After repeated letters, Ambition's sales director, Bob Stiff, refused Mrs Sullivan's request for fewer hours, despite the fact that other staff, including seven men, were allowed to change theirs. Afraid of losing her job, Mrs Sullivan was forced to work on between 6pm and 11pm every day until she was entitled to go on maternity leave.

"The only help they offered me at work was an empty cardboard box to put my feet on," Mrs Sullivan said. "I felt bullied and pushed out. I think because they couldn't fire me they just tried to make it as difficult as possible."

Aisling Sykes, 42, was sacked from her position as a vice president at City bank JP Morgan shortly after becoming pregnant with her fourth child. She won £12,000 compensation three years ago for unfair dismissal.

"I was prepared to work the hours. Even my boss described me as intelligent and motivated," Mrs Sykes said. "I just wanted a bit of flexibility, some leeway, to see my children in the midst of it."

Mrs Sykes had asked to be allowed to work from home in the evenings so she could spend more time with her young family. The industrial tribunal heard that her employers had argued the request was similar to wanting time off to play squash. But while the tribunal ruled that she had been unfairly dismissed, it found she had not suffered unlawful indirect sex discrimination.