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pregnant woman

Pregnancy discrimination is alive and well


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By Catherine Davis

Campaign Officer at the ACTU

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

IT’S against the law. It’s not acceptable. It’s backward and it’s short-sighted.

Yet one in five women in the workforce report discrimination by their employer, just because they became pregnant.

Such is the current culture of the workplace, that more women accept that they are likely to be shut out of paid work while they have a family, so they quit to avoid the treatment they expect.

That’s why the ACTU has set up the Pregnancy and Care Discrimination Hotline (1300 364 024) to offer support, understanding and an avenue to those who’ve experienced unlawful treatment to seek justice, if they so wish.

In 2011, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that:

•  One-in-three women in Australia with a child under two say they left the workforce permanently while pregnant or after having a child.
•  One-in-10 received inappropriate or negative (discriminatory) comments from their manager or supervisor.
•  One-in-15 missed out on an opportunity for promotion, training or development opportunities.

Significant numbers also reported being demoted, having their roles and responsibilities changed without consultation; were retrenched, dismissed or felt obliged to leave their job as a result of their pregnancy, parental leave or upon return to work.

On the weekend, the Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, announced that the Human Rights Commission will be charged with the responsibility of conducting an 11-month inquiry into pregnancy discrimination.

The Commission will look at the experiences of women once they become pregnant, while they are on maternity leave, and once they attempt to return to work.

It will also oversee a national survey to assess the prevalence, nature and consequences of discrimination relating, in particular, to pregnancy at work and return to work after parental leave.

“It’s illegal to discriminate against women for being pregnant but this hasn’t stopped one in five women reporting that they have been disadvantaged in the workplace.”

Mr Dreyfus said the government had been moved to commission the inquiry by statistics that about 67,000 women had experienced some form of discrimination because they had become pregnant.

“That is a staggering number – it tells us there is a serious problem,” he said.

The inquiry will be overseen by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, who confirmed that consultations, concluding in January next year, would follow an interim report, and the final report would be delivered in May next year.

The inquiry will convene a series of roundtable forums with industry and employer groups, unions, workers and other organisations before preparing recommendations to reduce discrimination.

“This is a critical area of work and the Commission welcomes the opportunity to conduct this research,” Ms Broderick said. “The number of complaints received by the Commission and Fair Work Australia in these areas indicates that discrimination in relation to pregnancy and return to work after parental leave is a continuing problem in Australia.”

ACTU President Ged Kearney said unions welcomed the inquiry into pregnancy discrimination “because too many families are struggling under a system that has not evolved to take into account the modern family”.

“Women continue to experience discrimination in the form of job loss, missed opportunity for promotion and training and even demotion when they return to work because many bosses out there just don’t get it,” Ms Kearney said.

“It’s illegal to discriminate against women for being pregnant but this hasn’t stopped one in five women reporting that they have been disadvantaged in the workplace.”

Sadly, based on the known cases, unions expect the can of proverbial worms will certainly be opened.

Unions regularly hear of cases like the following:

•  A finance manager with the Commonwealth Bank, was ‘restructured’ out of the organisation after returning to work from maternity leave and being told she was no longer required. Her lawyers said hers was the fifth such case they had handled against the bank in as many years.
•  Two former public relations managers for Virgin Blue, who were made redundant while on parental leave, provided evidence of documentation drafted by executive management that noted “all females should be on contract so that when they get pregnant it’s easy for the company to get rid of them”.
•  Three levels of management in a supermarket bakery refused a pregnant employee’s request not to do heavy lifting work despite her complaints of abdominal pain and provision of a doctor’s certificate that she should not undertake heavy lifting work.  She ruptured her abdominal muscles and as a consequence went in to premature labour.  Her baby was born so prematurely that for 12 months after the birth there was a nervous wait to see if the baby had suffered brain damage.

Despite the injustice of such cases, the weight of the problem lies in the fact that there are laws already in place that are supposed to prohibit this behaviour.

Not much has changed since the previous Federal Government initiated Australia’s first national inquiry into pregnancy discrimination in 1998.

It is a systemic, deeply rooted cultural problem that allows employers to believe they can get away with unlawful and discriminatory behaviour, mainly because they do.

The system forces women who believe they’ve been treated unfairly, due to their pregnancy, to prove that the treatment was on that basis. Unless companies are careless enough to admit such direct prejudice, it can be a difficult, stressful and downright humiliating process to go through in order to seek justice. In so many cases, women decide it is not worth the fight.

Unions represent their members regularly, to help them seek justice when they’ve been restructured, made redundant, refused a return to part-time work and other issues while on parental leave.

But challenging discriminatory behaviour needs to be supported with a significant cultural shift, that recognises that the workforce is changing and workplaces need to change with it.

Tell your story to the inquiry

Do you have a story about pregnancy discrimination? Make a submission to the government inquiry today.

Take action

Working Life is a forum to share ideas and opinions about work and life, both light-hearted and serious. The opinions presented on Working Life are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent policies or views of the ACTU.


Creative Commons License
We believe in the free flow of information, and content on Working Life is available to be republished online or in print under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


  1. Cassandra
    Tuesday, 25 June, 2013 at 11:59 am · Reply

    This is one of the conundrums of a ‘free enterprise’ capitalist economy where profit is seen as the main driving force .

    Clearly an organisation where the bottom line is profit will see having a worker leave for maternity for several months or years will try and avoid that situation if at all possible. After all replacing that worker is going to cost time and money recruiting and training and possibly paying two sets of wages for a time rather than one. Then there is the question of holding a job open for the returning employee and dismissing the replacement. All adding to the cost of the business. Then there is the problem of child care – does that fall on the employer by way of an on site crèche or must hours of work be changed to suit the new mother?

    Of course in a true socialist society where the State owns all the means of production and the profit motive is not the driving force then these ‘commercial decisions’ become social ones and are easily accommodated.

    It was not so long ago that women had to give up work on being married and were fired if found to be living in a ‘de-facto’ relationship to avoid having to leave work. That was when the woman’s pay rate was often only half of a mans for the same work.

    Now we have equal pay and continued employment what we have to decided in our ‘mixed’ economy is are we prepared to impose regulation on the private sector to make it comply with a socialist concept?

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