New research

Discrimination against parents and pregnant women rife at work

Dr Rachael Potter

A recent report reveals that pregnant women and parent workers in Australia are experiencing a staggering level of discrimination.

Research from the University of South Australia shows that 89% of pregnant workers are being discriminated against. Further, 84.7% of parent workers report being discriminated against while on parental leave, and 91.8% when returning to work.

It was “certainly a shock to see the figures when we could quantify the amount of discrimination”, said Dr Rachael Potter, lead author of National Review: Work Conditions and Discrimination among Pregnant and Parent Workers in Australia.

For Dr Potter, the stories of workers’ experiences were the most confronting findings, including women being told to express breast milk in a cupboard, pregnant women being denied toilet breaks, and parents missing out on opportunities and being “ignored or left behind” after having a child.

“Unions are just such an integral part of making things better.”

Calling for change

In the report, Dr Potter and her co-authors call for major changes to workplace conditions, a transformative shift in workplace culture, a Fair Work Ombudsman focused on pregnant and parent workers, and practical steps employers should be taking.

It’s been almost a decade since the last major Australian study into discrimination in the workplace against pregnant women and parents, released by the Australian Human Rights Commission in mid-2014. “And so, I really wanted to fill in the gap,” Dr Potter said.

The national review reveals that pregnant and parent workers are experiencing many kinds of discrimination, including their job being altered against their wishes while they were pregnant, receiving no information about leave entitlements, being ordered to do work below their level of competence during pregnancy, having a position terminated or “restructured” during leave, and receiving negative comments about flexible and part-time work.

IEU members play key role

More than 1000 workers across the country from a range of industries and sectors participated in the research, including IEU members. The IEU’s Queensland/Northern Territory Branch and the South Australian Branch encouraged members to participate. The union is credited in the report for supporting the research and Dr Potter says she is grateful to the IEU.

“Unions are just such an integral part of making things better,” said Dr Potter. She hopes the findings will bolster the work of unions representing the needs of pregnant women and parent workers. The review strengthens “knowledge and influence through evidence”, she said.

Teacher and IEU member Liz Heggart knows the importance of unions in advocating for working people while they are pregnant or raising children. Heggart, who is also a member of the IEU’s Executive, has supported pregnant members in temporary roles who were told they wouldn’t have a position when they returned from maternity leave.

Coming back but held back

Heggart, a mother of two, faced her own challenges when she returned to work after having her first child. “You weren’t made to feel like you were welcome back,” she said.

She has also seen how teachers who have flexible working arrangements to accommodate their childcare needs are not considered for leadership roles. She has not sought out those kinds of positions because “they make it hard for people who work part-time”. Often, it’s unspoken and subtle, she said, which is even harder to address.

Heggart believes working parents in part-time roles can sometimes be too scared to speak up because they “don’t want to rock the boat” or they fear losing their jobs.

Dr Potter agrees it’s often hard for workers in such situations to feel they can speak up. Since the report was published, parents have reached out to her on social media to tell her they had no idea they weren’t the only ones.

Dr Potter hopes the national review will help pregnant and parent workers encountering discrimination know they aren’t alone.

If you have concerns about the issues raised in this article, we urge you to call the union.

Read the report:

Lucy Meyer