A pregnant silence

A fresh look at discrimination is timely

British policy on demography is contradictory. Ministers lament the nation’s ageing profile, which is why we will have to import ever increasing numbers of young people to work, and pay for our retirement. At the same time, we don’t make it easy for people to have children and stay in a job. Childcare is expensive, and, as we report today, the Government is investigating claims that pregnant women routinely encounter discrimination at work, or are simply sacked.

The problem is not the law, which is clear. It is illegal for employers to demote or get rid of staff because they have become pregnant. The problem is compliance with the law which, according to charities working in the field, declined following the onset of the recession.

Ahead of the results of the investigation that Maria Miller has promised, the evidence is inevitably anecdotal. There is also a difference being pregnant women believing that employers discriminated against them and it being proven that firms actually did so.

Nevertheless, the fact that about a third of respondents to several polls complained of suffering at work on account of their pregnancy is enough to merit taking a closer look. The problem may even be worse than people realise. Significantly, most of the respondents to a survey by the law firm Slater and Gordon who complained of discrimination at work said they had not made a formal complaint.

Employers will grumble that the law imposes a heavy burden on small businesses with slender profit margins. There may be some truth to this, but we cannot have a two-tier economy in which some businesses are allowed to discriminate against women on the grounds of poverty, and others not. The era when most families had one stay-at-home parent – mother – is over, so companies must get used to treating women fairly. That includes when they get pregnant.