There’s a recurring story I keep hearing from women.
I’ve read it in the comments sections of Facebook pages. I’ve seen it in the responses of our recent survey on Women’s career ambitions. I’ve heard it at times on the record, but more often off the record, from women we interview on Women’s Agenda.
The story is the one about women being fired by their employer just before taking maternity leave, while on maternity leave, or shortly after returning from maternity leave.
And it’s a story – being told by women across all industry sectors – that’s also backed by data from the Australian Human Rights Commission, which found that one in two women will experience pregnancy discrimination either before, during or shortly after taking maternity leave.
While I can only hope this is not a ‘growing’ trend in Australia, it’s still certainly a trend that’s affecting a lot of new mothers, hurting everything from her confidence to her earning potential, financial position and the choices she had regarding her situation at home.
Sometimes these ‘redundancies’ or firings make headline news, particularly if they involve a recognisable television journalist.
Very occasionally they get heard in court.
This week the Federal Circuit Court heard the case of Caroline Power, a former employee of energy company BOC who was made redundant two days before starting maternity leave in November 2015. She was one of eight people to be let go nationally as part of a restructure, however the Court found that in Caroline’s case, the move was accelerated due to the fact she was due to start maternity leave – which was her workplace right.
Earlier this year, the Federal Circuit Court also found a real estate firm unlawfully fired an administrative assistant in the last week of her probation period, because she was pregnant and had needed to take sick leave. Minutes from a directors meeting were reviewed by the courts which mentioned the pregnant staff member’s name along with the comment, “6 months 6 June. Situation needs to be dealt with”.
These women are part of a tiny minority to take their cases to court. And a smaller minority still who hear the court ruling in their favour.
Last month, I spoke to entrepreneur Natasha Stewart, who shared her story of being fired from a corporate role – something she believes occurred because she had a young daughter at home.
Natasha said the experience left her feeling worthless, confused and traumatised. “I asked him to tell me what I’d done wrong and was told, ‘You need to go. Don’t push me on this or you are going to regret it.” Now running a successful online and flexible business, she says she’d be happy to send a thank you note the guy who fired her.
Natasha now runs a successful online business, and she’s helping other mothers establish their own.
But these stories of women who lose their jobs don’t always end so well.
While plenty of women move on — start businesses, find more “understanding” employers — others see their employment prospects significantly depleted.
All of this also hurts Australia’s chances of meeting its G20 commitment to reduce the gender gap participation rate by 25 per cent by the year 2025. A goal that now barely rates a mention in federal politics. We have the “get women educated” piece sorted on this, with Australia ranking first for women’s educational attainment of OECD nations. But much of that education is going to waste – along with the national investment in paid parental leave, if organisations continue to discriminate against almost half of all pregnant employees. I dare suggest pregnancy discrimination is part of the reason why we can only manage a 55th ranking across OECD nations when it comes to women’s workplace participation
One piece of research that’s quoted repeatedly is that Australia could increase its national GDP by $25 billion a year, with just a 6% increase in women’s workforce, according to the Gratton Institute.
I’ve heard politicians say this, business and industry leaders say this. I’ve heard it come up constantly in conversations with employers large and small.
We must stop women “opting out”, they say (as if it’s a choice). We must improve the confidence of new mothers, fix our broken childcare system, improve flexible working options and encourage men to do more at home.
But ahead of all of that, we must stop employers from unlawfully firing pregnant women and new mothers.