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 Pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace

If you feel like you’ve been wrongly treated while you’re pregnant, on maternity leave or on your return to work, here’s the information that you need…

While being pregnant and working are not mutually exclusive; unfortunately, some women do face unfair treatment at work as a result. Check out Maternity Action’s video for examples of the ways in which women experience discrimination – and for tips on how to deal with these issues.

Maternity leave and pregnancy discrimination laws

If you’re feeling at all wobbly about your rights, this is the most important thing to know. It’s against the law to treat people unfavourably because they are pregnant, have a pregnancy-related illness, gave birth recently or are breastfeeding (Acas, no date; Maternity Action, no date a). So if you feel like that is happening to you, you have every right to speak up.

Pregnancy and maternity discrimination is a big problem

If you’re feeling alone with these issues, how about this for a stat? Every year, 54,000 new mums lose their jobs across the UK. And one in five experienced harassment or negative comments from someone at work when they were pregnant or back from maternity leave. One in 10 said they were treated worse when they returned to work after having a baby. And 7% were even put under pressure to hand in their notice (EHRC, 2018). Shocking.

What is pregnancy-related discrimination?

There are four main types of pregnancy or maternity discrimination:

  • Direct discrimination: when you are treated unfairly or unfavourably because you are pregnant, on maternity leave or breastfeeding, e.g. being refused a promotion.
  • Indirect discrimination: when a workplace practice works against people who are pregnant, breastfeeding or on maternity leave, e.g. asking all employees to work set hours.
  • Harassment: when unwanted conduct related to your pregnancy, maternity leave or breastfeeding causes a distressing, humiliating or offensive environment for you.
  • Victimisation: treating you unfairly because you’ve made or supported a complaint about pregnancy, maternity or breastfeeding discrimination (Acas, no date; Maternity Action, no date a).

Your employer should ensure they have rules in place that are designed to prevent discrimination in:

  • Recruitment
  • Determining pay
  • Training and development
  • Selection for promotion
  • Discipline and grievances
  • Redundancy selection (Acas, no date; Maternity Action, no date a).

Redundancy during maternity leave

In summary, your role can be made redundant while you are on maternity leave. You could also be selected for redundancy, if – and this is a crucial ‘if’ – pregnancy is not the reason you were selected (Acas, no date; Maternity Action, no date b).

Genuine redundancy on maternity leave: how to tell if it’s discrimination or valid

Knowing – and proving – whether your redundancy is valid or not can be tricky. To make things clearer, the law says:

  • If you’re on maternity leave, you have the right to return to the same job you had before you left. If you’ve taken more than 26 weeks maternity leave and it is not possible for you to return to exactly the same job, for example, because there has been a reorganisation, you must be offered a suitable alternative job on the same terms and conditions.
  • Selecting you for redundancy because of your pregnancy, maternity leave or a related reason is automatically unfair dismissal and may also be pregnancy/maternity discrimination.
  • Not consulting you on maternity leave about possible redundancy is likely to be unlawful discrimination.
  • If you’re made redundant while on maternity leave you must be offered any suitable alternative job, if one exists. You should not be expected to go for interviews and assessments during your maternity leave. If you are not offered a suitable alternative vacancy that exists, you may have a claim for unfair dismissal, automatic unfair dismissal and it may be maternity discrimination (Acas, no date; Maternity Action, no date b).

If your employer gives your duties to someone else while you’re on maternity leave and then doesn’t allow you back or says your job no longer exists, that would not be a genuine redundancy or a good reason for giving you a different job (Acas, no date; Maternity Action, no date b).

You should get legal advice as soon as possible because time limits apply for making claims in an employment tribunal (Acas, no date; Maternity Action, no date b).

Pregnancy rights at work: what you can do

Firstly, you could speak to your employer, line manager, union or HR department to try to sort out the matter informally (Acas, no date; Maternity Action, no date a).

If you’re unable to resolve the problem, you can write to your employer. As a last resort you can make a more formal complaint or use your employer’s grievance procedure (Acas, no date; Maternity Action, no date a).

If you feel you have been dismissed or discriminated against, you can bring a claim in an Employment Tribunal (Acas, no date; Maternity Action, no date a).

Pregnant employee rights: tribunals

First step: contact the employment relations organisation Acas. If you can’t reach an agreement, Acas will issue a certificate and you can bring your claim in an Employment Tribunal (Acas, no date; Maternity Action, no date a).

You usually have around three months from the date of dismissal, redundancy or discriminatory act to bring a claim. It’s important to make your claim within the time limits as they are rarely extended (Acas, no date; Maternity Action, no date a).

If you want to keep your job, it is important to try to resolve it amicably and to talk to your employer informally for as long as possible. If you have tried everything and you are thinking of making a claim in a tribunal, you should raise a grievance as a last resort (Acas, no date; Maternity Action, no date a).

You might find it useful to watch Maternity Action's film on the process of pursuing a grievance.

Breastfeeding at work

If you want to continue breastfeeding when you head back to work, then that’s absolutely your right (Acas, 2014; Maternity Action, no date c). Whether you’ll be pumping milk while in work or bringing your child in to feed, your employer needs to make sure that you have access to somewhere safe to do so (Acas, 2014; Maternity Action, no date c).

They also need to make sure that it’s safe for you to work by making reasonable adjustments to your working conditions or hours of work (Acas, 2014; Maternity Action, no date c)

This page was last reviewed in March 2022.

Further information

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.

We also offer antenatal courses which are a great way to find out more about birth, labour and life with a new baby.

Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.

A new awareness initiative has been launched by the EHRC to reduce pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace. The new initiative is called #worksforme.

Find out more about Employment Tribunals here.

If you feel that your organisation is treating you badly because you are pregnant, you have taken maternity leave or you are breastfeeding then free legal advice and support is available from the organisations listed below.

ACAS advice on employment rights and Early Conciliation 0300 123 1100

Equality and Human Rights Commission: Code of Practice on Employment, chapter 8

Equality Advisory Support Service advice on discrimination and human rights 0808 800 0082

Gov.uk Guide to bringing a claim in an Employment Tribunal

Employers guide to maternity and parental rights

Call the Maternity Action helpline on 0845 600 8533 for information on maternity rights.

Working Families helpline: 0300 012 0312 or email: advice@workingfamilies.org.uk

Acas. (2014) Accommodating breastfeeding employees in the workplace. Available at: http://www.acas.org.uk/media/pdf/b/s/Acas-guide-on-accommodating-breast… [Accessed 31st March 2022]

Acas. (no date) Managing your employee’s maternity leave and pay. Available at: https://www.acas.org.uk/managing-your-employees-maternity-leave-and-pay… [Accessed 31st March 2022]

EHRC. (2018) Pregnancy and maternity discrimination research findings. Available at: https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/managing-pregnancy-and-maternity… [Accessed 31st March 2022]

Maternity Action. (no date a) Pregnancy discrimination. Available at: https://maternityaction.org.uk/advice/pregnancy-discrimination/ [Accessed 31st March 2022]

Maternity Action. (no date b) Redundancy during pregnancy, maternity and parental leave. Available at: https://maternityaction.org.uk/advice/redundancy-during-pregnancy-and-m… [Accessed 31st March 2022]

Maternity Action. (no date c) Breastfeeding at work. Available at: https://maternityaction.org.uk/advice/breastfeeding-at-work/ [Accessed 31st March 2022]

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