Discrimination against pregnant women is alive and well in the UK, according to the Equal Opportunities Commission, with too many employers still seeing motherhood as incompatible with paid employment.
In an average year more than a thousand women in England and Wales take legal action claiming they were sacked because of their pregnancy. But according to, Julie Mellor, Chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) , this figure is only the tip of the iceberg.
Yet employers who do support women when they are pregnant and on their return to work see real benefits to their bottom line.
Speaking on at the launch of an EOC investigation into the problems encountered by new and expectant mothers and their employers in managing pregnancy at work, Mellor said that many employers still see pregnancy as a problem and discrimination still goes on.
Studies of tribunal cases have also revealed that the majority of women are dismissed prior to going on maternity leave, sometimes within hours or days of informing their employers that they are pregnant.
"Our research indicates that employers' concerns about the impact of their staff's childcare problems can mean that some see the announcement of an employee's pregnancy as forewarning of difficulties in the future," she said.
"The childcare challenge for parents is made worse by Britain's long hours and a lack of flexibility. The economic realities of modern life mean that most parents have to work.
"However, pregnant women who are treated fairly by their employers are more likely to go back to work after having children. With the average cost of replacing one member of staff amounting to £4,000, the British economy and individual employers themselves simply cannot afford to lose valuable, skilled staff – just because they are pregnant.
"Many firms do manage pregnancy successfully and we are keen to learn the lessons of those that do as part of our forthcoming in-depth research into the problems employers, large and small, face.
And she added that when women are pushed out by their employer, they don't just pay a financial cost; evidence also suggests that they are more likely to suffer from depression.
The current legal time limit for making a claim of pregnancy discrimination is three months. This means that many women must lodge their claim with the employment tribunal during the latter stages of pregnancy or when they have recently given birth. But the EOC called for more research is needed to look at whether the current tribunal system is fully accessible to pregnant women.
The report concludes that the persistence of pregnancy discrimination may reflect a traditional image of motherhood as incompatible with paid employment. As one mother told the EOC:
"I work for an organisation that seems to believe that having a day off for a hangover is pretty macho, but having a day off for morning sickness is a pain in the neck. I call the place Jurassic Park," she said.