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It is fifteen years since the Australian Human Rights Commission first conducted a national inquiry into pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. That inquiry report, entitled ‘Pregnant and Productive: It’s a right not a privilege to work while pregnant’, revealed widespread discrimination towards pregnant women. It also highlighted the need to examine discrimination in the workplace after pregnancy – including women’s experiences while on parental leave and on returning to the workplace.

Fifteen years on, the Commission has completed a second National Review. Broader in scope, this National Review confirms that the situation has not markedly changed. We have documented the prevalence, nature and consequences of discrimination in the workplace, not only in relation to pregnancy, but also in relation to parental leave and return to work. And this second National Review confirmed that working while pregnant is still often seen as a privilege, not a right. Not only that, this view extends to parents on 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.

In fact, the National Prevalence Survey conducted as part of this Review - the first of its kind in Australia – has revealed that one in two (49%) mothers reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace at some point during pregnancy, parental leave or on return to work. What’s more, it also revealed that over a quarter (27%) of the fathers and partners surveyed reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace related to parental leave and return to work as well.

This Survey, therefore, provides a benchmark from which we can measure future progress. Indeed, much progress needs to be made. Both through the Survey and a detailed consultation and submission process, the National Review heard that discrimination has enduring repercussions for many pregnant women and working mothers and fathers. Discrimination, ranging from negative attitudes through to dismissal, has an impact on the physical and mental health of individuals, their career and job opportunities, financial situations and their families. It also has consequences for workplaces. This includes higher absenteeism, lower productivity, higher staff turnover, subsequent recruitment and training costs, as well as reputational damage.

Of course, we did not only speak to employees. Employers from different sized businesses and industries reported that, despite their best intentions, they face difficulties managing business pressures when employees are pregnant, on parental leave or returning to work on flexible arrangements. Meanwhile, employees and employers identified some common challenges. These include understanding legal rights and obligations, developing effective leadership, ensuring that policies are put into practice - particularly by line managers - and dealing with a limited pool of affordable early childhood education and care services.

We also met with employers who are taking the lead in addressing these concerns. These are employers who have developed and implemented successful strategies reaping positive results for their entire organisations. The Report showcases some of these leading practices. They demonstrate that these challenges can be and are being met, with ultimate benefits for all.

What distinguishes this National Review is that it is grounded in both the voices of individuals affected by discrimination and the experiences of employers who manage these issues on a daily basis. It reflects the expertise of community organisations (including unions and working women’s centres) that support individuals affected by discrimination. It also reflects the contributions of governments, in identifying and developing legal and policy solutions. Another distinguishing feature is the timing. As we now have a national Paid Parental Leave scheme, the options for disseminating guidance and educational material are much more expansive.

The National Review has been a collaboration with key representatives of business and industry peaks, unions, working women centres and academics. All have shaped its methodology and findings. At the heart of our findings are the many hundreds of individuals and organisations that contributed to the process. We are incredibly grateful for these contributions. They now serve as a foundation for our recommendations.

As this evidence base shows, pregnancy, parental leave and return to work discrimination in workplaces reveals itself to be a systemic issue, one which requires multi-faceted and effective strategies in order to find solutions. There is no one size fits all. A key principle underpinning our recommendations, therefore, has been to focus on finding practical solutions – solutions which can be customised to apply across a range of workplaces and can speak to a variety of stakeholders.

As diverse and wide ranging as these stakeholders may be, all agree that workplaces should be free from discrimination. They agree that women’s equal participation in the labour force is crucial – not just to individuals and workplaces, but to the wider economy.

While this National Review is necessarily focussed on paid work, importantly, it does not seek to devalue the vital caring role undertaken by parents and carers every day. Caring work is the ultimate expression of our humanity. Hence, it is central to Australia’s social and economic wellbeing. With this in mind, the outcomes of the Review should not be construed as pushing women into paid work. What it seeks to do is to ensure that discrimination is no longer the reason that women opt out of the paid workforce.

We all have families. We all want fulfilling working lives and we want these things not just for ourselves but also for our children. Can we afford to put fifty per cent of Australia’s skills, creativity and talent to one side solely on the basis of child bearing and child raising?

Just as we all have a right to family, we also have a right to paid work. If we work together, we can create workplaces where pregnancy, parental leave and return to work discrimination have no place - workplaces where people can work and care. We can ensure that three years from now, when we release the next prevalence survey, the outlook it captures will be considerably brighter.

Elizabeth Broderick
Sex Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission
June 2014