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Tackling pregnancy discrimination

Eight out of 10 mothers now return to work before their child is 18 months old.
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LONDON, England -- Many British businesses are failing to manage pregnancy effectively because of a lack of awareness of their legal obligations, according to ongoing research by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC).

But the survey of 450 employers also discovered that most have positive attitudes about pregnancy in the workplace, with women working for larger companies or as part of a predominantly female workforce in an especially strong position.

The EOC's research forms part of a larger investigation into vocational pregnancy discrimination entitled "Pregnant and Productive" that is due to be published later this year.

It will examine the scale of discrimination and its impact on employers and employees and will form the basis for recommendations to Patricia Hewitt, the U.K. secretary of state for trade and industry, on what can be done to make a working pregnancy a more positive experience.

The survey comes at a time when more and more mothers -- as many as 80 percent according to recent figures -- are returning to work either part-time or full-time before their child is 18 months old.

According to the preliminary study, virtually all employers agreed that "women working for this organization are positively supported during pregnancy and on return to work."

Almost three-quarters of those questioned were able to name at least one statutory right to which pregnant women were legally entitled, with 46 percent mentioning maternity leave and 45 percent highlighting maternity pay. Among those 89 percent believed that such entitlements were fair and reasonable.

But just over a quarter of respondents were unable to cite a statutory entitlement, while 28 percent said it was not worth training a pregnant employee, even though it is against the law to deny training on the grounds of pregnancy.

The worst informed employers were likely to be those in small workplaces, with a mostly male workforce or those that had not had to handle a pregnancy in the past three years.

While 77 percent of large-scale employers had set guidelines relating to pregnancy at work, just 19 percent of smaller employers had a support system in place.

Increased workloads

Issues relating to maternity leave such as increased workloads for other staff, planning cover and the uncertainty of when a woman would return to work were perceived as the hardest issues to manage.

"Many organizations do handle pregnancy positively and as a result see business benefits, such as better retention rates and increased productivity," said EOC deputy chair Jenny Watson.

"Yet the results of our new research suggest that significant numbers of employers have limited knowledge of the law, which may be preventing them from managing pregnancy effectively.

"Practical issues, such as arranging maternity cover, can also present problems for employers who want to treat pregnant employees fairly -- but both large and small employers have told us that these practical difficulties can be overcome, or at least minimized through good planning and dialogue."

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