Date: 
Friday 25 July 2014

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s landmark report for its Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review, released today, has found that little has changed in the 15 years since its first Inquiry into this subject. Australian workplaces still overwhelmingly view working while pregnant as a privilege, not a right.

“Our Review included an Australia-wide national consultation process and a national prevalence survey, which Australia is one of the few countries to have undertaken,” Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick said. “It provides indisputable evidence that pregnancy/return to work discrimination continues to be widespread and has a cost - not just to women, working parents and their families - but also to workplaces and the national economy.”

The Review found that one in two (49%) mothers and over a quarter (27%) of the fathers and partners surveyed reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace during pregnancy, parental leave or on return to work. Women and men spoke of the devastating impacts such discrimination can have on a person’s health, on their economic security and on their family.  In the words of one woman:

I would describe my experiences during pregnancy, whilst on parental leave and on returning to work as harrowing, disappointing and probably the worst experience of my life. I spent much of my pregnancy feeling anxious (and sometimes in tears), despite being thrilled about the pregnancy and being physically well. I felt powerless, vulnerable and fearful about my job security and couldn’t understand why I was being treated so badly, especially given my unquestionable commitment to the organisation over the previous seven years.

“The existence of these forms of workplace discrimination is also limiting women’s participation in paid work as well as the productivity of businesses and other organisations,” said Ms Broderick. “Addressing it is not only a human rights imperative, but also an organisational priority. It is critical to the growth of both a strong economy and a cohesive society.”

Commissioner Broderick emphasised that some employers found managing these issues difficult, particularly the uncertainty surrounding pregnancy and return to work. In the words of an employer:

The first thing is that you try to be very excited on behalf of the person who’s telling you. Secretly what you’re [thinking] is how the hell am I going to replace this person for the next year? With the best intentions in the world not to discriminate in any way, how can you avoid being concerned: how am I going to run this company and meet my objectives in the next year or two?
Despite this, the Review found many were putting dynamic and leading strategies in place to overcome these barriers and support their employees.  The Report highlights these leading practices.

The recommendations in the Report are directed towards government, workplaces and the wider Australian community, all of whom have an interest in increasing women’s participation in the workforce and creating supportive workplaces. 

“While there are a few areas where the laws can be strengthened, our recommendations are directed towards a much better implementation of legal obligations through greater provision of information about employee rights and employer obligations,” Ms Broderick said. “This is an approach intended to help plug the gap that allows this discrimination to take place – the gap between the legal framework and the implementation of the law.”

The recommendations also emphasise the need for strategies and approaches designed to help dismantle stereotypes and drive cultural change within workplaces, as well as the importance of further monitoring, evaluation and research to shape effective action.

“Research and modelling shows that if businesses and other employers are able to retain women and men who are becoming new parents by eradicating pregnancy/ return to work discrimination, there will be a considerable economic dividend to both them and the wider economy,” said Ms Broderick. “It’s a human issue first. Workplace discrimination has a damaging impact on the lives of parents. But by working together, we can achieve positive results for all.”

The Commission welcomes the Federal Government’s response to the findings of the National Review with the Minister Assisting the Prime Minster for Women, Senator the Hon Michaelia Cash, today announcing funding of $150,000 for the Commission to develop resources for employers on how to best manage and support working parents through pregnancy, parental leave, and on return to work.

View the report at: www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/supporting-working-parents-pregnancy-and-return-work-national-review-report

A live stream of Friday's launch can be viewed at http://youtu.be/MbvpPsYeJIg

Highlights video