Discrimination against women seeking maternity leave is frequently hidden, due to the use of gagging orders, experts have told the Victoria Derbyshire BBC programme. Gagging orders can be placed on employees who have lost their jobs and have settled out of court.
Speaking to the programme, a worker called Emma (not her real name) explained how she was caught up in a misunderstanding with her boss at a beauty salon. "My boss said if I'm not going back to work, then I'd have to pay back all the maternity payment,” she said. Emma was then told she was no longer needed at the company.
"I didn't know what to do. I'm a single mum, no family. No-one can help me. How can I pay my rent? How can I pay my bills? I was floored." She then settled out of court and signed a confidentiality agreement – which is why her real identity has been hidden.
According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, one in nine mothers of 3,000 interviewed said they had been let go from their jobs, or treated badly, as a result of pregnancy in 2015. Speaking to the publication, Karen Jackson, Director of law firm Didlaw, admits that the scale of the issue is hidden behind these settlement agreements – which is why there isn’t more publicity on the problem.
"I've never seen a settlement agreement that didn't have a very strict confidentiality term in it," she said. "I wish I could talk about some of the companies that I've dealt with and their attitudes to pregnancy and maternity.
"Household names, brands that we know, banks, insurers, utility companies, big conglomerates, retail - you name it, these companies have all at some point had some issues. If I look at the FTSE 100 there's a good chunk of companies on that list that I've acted against around pregnancy and maternity."
One mother, Catherine McClennan, took her former employer, TUC, to court in a maternity discrimination tribunal. She received damages as well as an additional £21,000. Speaking to the BBC, she said: "My job and job title was omitted from the [company's] directory, which was really hard to see in print to be honest with you. At one point, when I said: 'Look, I've come back. I'm a competent, able, professional woman. I've always done a really good job. I just want to continue with my career', she was asked by a female colleague if I had post-natal depression.”
The TUC claimed that there was no “malicious or conscious attempt to discriminate”.