Government urges employers to make breastfeeding at work easier


New initiatives planned to end ‘unacceptable and unlawful’ discrimination against working women

Employers are being told to do more to help mothers breastfeed their babies at work, as part of the government’s latest initiative to tackle workplace discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers.

The government’s plans aim to encourage organisations to take “a more progressive approach” towards female staff who return to their jobs after having children, such as by providing private spaces for breastfeeding mothers to express and store their milk, and places where they can feed their babies while at work.

“Pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination is unacceptable and unlawful and has no place in today’s society,” said Margot James, the minister for small business, consumer protection and corporate social responsibility. “This is an important issue that I take very seriously.”

In a letter to MPs, James said she wanted pregnant women, mothers and “all women” to be able to work “if they choose to do so”.

Her comments follow a study released last week by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, which found that most mothers in low-skilled jobs were forced to give up work after the birth of their second child.

Government studies also suggest that one in nine working mothers – equivalent to around 54,000 women a year – are forced to quit their jobs because they are treated so badly at work, or even sacked.

Similar numbers said they were discouraged from attending antenatal appointments, while one in five mothers said they had experienced harassment or negative comments related to pregnancy from their colleagues.

Research by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) earlier this year found that 70 per cent of employers thought a woman should declare her pregnancy at interview stage, and 25 per cent felt it was reasonable to ask women about their plans to have children when interviewing candidates for jobs.

Julia Waltham, head of policy and campaigns at Working Families, said: “We speak to mothers every day who find themselves subject to harassment, exclusion and negative comments when they return to work after maternity leave.”

James said her department was considering taking new steps – dubbed ‘nudge techniques’ – to prompt more employers to change their approaches to female staff with young children. These techniques are expected to include videos, information campaigns and new guidelines to persuade more organisations to comply with their obligations to treat new mothers and pregnant women fairly.

“We will continue to make the case for inclusive workplaces, where everyone can reach their full potential, which is good news for businesses and the economy as well as employees,” she added. “The government encourages breastfeeding and recommends that employers enable women to breastfeed at work as a matter of best practice.”

Other female-friendly government initiatives in the pipeline include opening up employment access for women; a joint government-EHRC publicity campaign persuading employers of the economic benefits of retaining the talents and experience of pregnant women and new mothers; a collective insurance scheme to help SMEs with the cost of providing enhanced maternity pay; and training for line managers from Acas about their legal duties to protect pregnant women and new mothers from discrimination

Waltham backed the government’s plans. “When women are forced out of work it’s a dreadful waste of skills and talents that this country needs. We believe most employers would like to get it right – and often have good intentions and the right policies in place – but unless line managers are properly trained in maternity rights and are supported in their management of pregnant women and new mothers this is where it can, and often does, go wrong. The training from Acas is therefore very welcome.”

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