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In our April blog Stand up Australia – Our working mums and dads deserve better we brought you the preliminary findings of the Government’s National Review into discrimination related to pregnancy, parental leave and return to work after parental leave. The landmark Human Rights Commission study found 50% of women experience discrimination during this period. Just as astounding is the fact that this figure has barely changed in 20 years according to the Commission. It’s not just a woman’s issue – over a quarter of men also face discrimination on return from parental leave.

Now, the Commission has released its full report with recommendations for Government and employers on how to help fix this problem, a problem that Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick says would boost Australia’s economy. She told ABC News: “What we do know is that men’s workforce participation rate is about 12% above women’s. If we could close that gap by lifting women’s participation just 6%, we would add around $25 billion annually to Australia’s GDP. This has got significant productivity benefits for Australia.”

From our perspective the report is thorough and includes 4 outstanding principles that if implemented successfully will change the shameful affairs of pregnancy and return to work discrimination in Australian workplaces.

Below we highlight:

  • What employers need to know
  • Best strategies to combat discrimination
  • The Commission’s recommendations – 4 key principles
  • A brief overview by the Human Rights commission including first hand accounts of pregnancy and return to work discrimination

What employers need to know 

Best strategies to combat discrimination

The strategy with the highest impact in reducing discrimination in this area is to address the gap that currently exists between the law and its proper implementation within organisations.

Complementary strategies and actions to address this gap include:

  • Ensuring employers and employees gain an increased understanding of the legislative framework
  • Improving the clarity and dissemination of information
  • Conducting effective training
  • Changing workplace cultures to remove harmful stereotypes, practices and behaviours
  • Monitoring the implementation of policies.
  • Strong leadership within organisations will support reforms that shape more supportive and successful workplaces

The Commission’s recommendations – 4 key principles 

Principle 1: Understanding rights and obligations is the starting point. Employers and employees need clear, comprehensive and consistent information that will assist them to increase and enhance their understanding of their obligations and their rights and how they should be applied in the workplace.

Other measures can include:

  • Developing and implementing policies and programs to support pregnant employees and working parents
  • Ensuring good communication and information sharing between management and employees throughout the continuum of pregnancy, parental leave and on return from parental leave
  • Promoting flexible work opportunities, and
  • Identifying and measuring key metrics, such as return to work rates and promotion rates for flexible workers.

Principle 2: Dismantling harmful stereotypes, practices and behaviours about pregnant women and working parents is critical to eliminating discrimination related to pregnancy, parental leave and return to work.

Identifying and ‘calling-out’ the harmful stereotypes in operation within a workplace is the first step to dismantling them. The second critical step is to expose and remove the stereotypes and unconscious bias underlying an organisation’s policies and practices for leave, flexible work, and promotion and performance indicators. 

Principle 3: Strong standards and improved implementation drives change and helps to create productive workplaces. 

There is therefore a need to focus on strategies that bridge the gap between law and practice.

Points relevant to employers include:

  • Amending the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to include a positive duty on employers to reasonably accommodate the needs of workers who are pregnant and/or have family responsibilities.
  • Strengthening the ‘right to request’ provisions introducing a positive duty on employers to reasonably accommodate a request for flexible working arrangements.

The Federal Government has already committed to providing $150,000 to support resources about the rights and obligations of both employers and workers. 

Principle 4: Ongoing monitoring, evaluation and research will help to shape effective action.

As a priority, further research is needed to identify the most effective mechanism for reducing the level of vulnerability to redundancy and job loss of pregnant women, employees on parental leave and working parents. It has been recommended that the Government allocate funding to conduct a regular national prevalence survey.

A brief overview including first hand accounts of pregnancy and return to work discrimination 

Report: pregnancy and return to work discrimination costs everyone 

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.

For the full report (including the more digestible Community Guide) visit the Human Rights Commission website.

First published: 25 July 2014

Source: Human Rights Commission.