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Maternity Leave - Know Your Rights

A return to work that works for you.

Over the past year I've had the opportunity to speak to lots of new mums, both socially and in my classes. Aside from the usual topics of conversation (sleep, feeding, naps, poo) the inevitable end of maternity leave and subsequent return to the workplace is often cited as a cause of anxiety. Having not had the most positive experience myself, I am amazed by the number of women I speak to whose return to work has not been smooth sailing and in many cases, has led to stress and anxiety. Only last week, a friend (who works for a huge corporation) was relaying how she had to re-interview for her position alongside 17 other applicants, only to be given her role back. Hardly the warm welcome she was hoping for.

Since having a child myself, I have realised how challenging it is for working mums to thrive at work whilst keeping everything and everyone else going in the background. The fact that so many do this whilst facing resistance from work is a testament to their strength, but it really shouldn’t be so hard.

I was discussing this with my friend (and trailblazing employment law partner at Edwin Coe LLP) Emma Sangeelee over a few wines, and she pointed out how routinely she sees new mums facing unlawful treatment at work, but lacking the confidence to stand up to it.

The work I do is all about helping new mums build confidence through building physical strength. To complement this, Emma has kindly written an incredible guest blog with some top tips designed to help anyone who might be currently pregnant or negotiating their return to work. We really hope this helps smoothen your journey through maternity leave and your return to work, and Emma is more than happy to discuss your particular circumstances with you, should you need some further support.

You can find more information about Emma here....Emma Sangeelee

Over to Emma.....Bx

Advocate for a return from maternity leave that works for you.

Having a baby is life changing for all new parents. However, whilst male employees have historically been supported by their employers in terms of job security, pay and promotions, acknowledging they now have a family to support, many new mothers still find themselves facing prejudice and uncertainty at work. If you have just announced your pregnancy, are on a period of maternity leave and/or are returning to the workplace, then my top tips below should help you navigate what can be a daunting time professionally.

The most common issues that I see new mothers facing in practice are:

  • they are made to feel guilty about the impact of their maternity leave on the business and their colleagues, and are then marginalised and excluded. This is a key factor in undermining their confidence to advocate for themselves if/when some of the other issues mentioned below;

  • their colleagues are unsupportive and inflexible;

  • negative assumptions are made about their commitment to their careers. They are overlooked for pay rises and promotions and/or their colleagues are promoted around them (resulting in an effective demotion);

  • key elements of their role and/or their key clients/accounts are taken away from them (often retained by their maternity leave cover), requiring them to start again on their return from maternity leave (also an effective demotion);

  • they are made redundant during maternity leave or in the months following their return.

These behaviours can mean you end up feeling grateful for having any role to return to, and reluctant to advocate for your rights. However, applied correctly, the law does offer you security in your employment and protection against the stagnation of your career. The key legal protections you have include:

  • the right not to be treated less favourably because of pregnancy or maternity leave;

  • the right to return from maternity leave to the same or equivalent role on the same terms and conditions;

  • the obligation on employers not to have practices which indirectly discriminate against women who remain more likely to be responsible for childcare;

  • the right to request flexible working (open to all employees, not just new mothers);

  • the right not to be treated less favourably, because you have asserted any of the above rights.

Despite these protections, it can be daunting to stand up for yourself if your employer falls short of the mark. My top tips below should help you to pre-empt some of the above issues, and advocate confidently for a return to work that works for you:

  • be clear (preferably in writing) about what the key elements of your role and/or key accounts/clients are that you expect to be given back, before your maternity leave starts. This limits the risk of the erosion of your role and of key elements being retained by others on your return. It should also make it easier to resolve any disputes that do arise;

  • be proactive in engaging with your employer about how your maternity leave will be covered. Your work must be well looked after so that you are not left picking up the pieces and needing to significantly rebuild on your return;

  • use your KIT days to keep in touch with your employer and an eye on what is going on at work during your absence. Also attend any informal work events (team lunches/the Christmas party etc.) so that you remain connected to your team during your maternity leave;

  • make clear that you still want to be informed of and considered for any promotions that come up, including during your maternity leave;

  • be specific and realistic in any request for flexible working. For example, a request to work from home if you have a role that genuinely requires you to attend the workplace, is never going to be agreed. It may be worth having informal discussions with your manager first to get a feel for any concerns that may arise, so that you can address those when you make a formal request;

  • do not delay in raising concerns in the hope that things will resolve themselves. Small issues are often a precursor to bigger issues down the line and are much more easily dealt with at an early stage;

  • know your legal rights. For example, a redundancy occurring months following your return from maternity leave can still amount to pregnancy/maternity discrimination in certain circumstances, and as a woman on maternity leave, you should be preferred for any suitable available roles in most redundancy situation;

  • get legal expenses insurance cover for employment disputes (often included in home buildings and contents policies). Hopefully you will not need it, but if you are treated poorly by your employer and are unable to resolve the dispute amicably, then knowing you have some financial backing should help you to feel more confident about asserting your rights;

  • if appropriate, encourage your partner to exercise their rights to child related time off, including time off for antenatal appointments, paternity leave, shared parental leave. Also consider both you and your partner making flexible working requests to share between you, the childcare responsibilities that might impact on your work (for example nursey collection). The issues new mothers face in the workplace are reflective of wider gender stereotypes in society. Less than a third of men take paternity leave, and until men taking leave to care for their children is normalised, the prejudices many new mothers suffer in the workplace will continue to be perpetuated.

I hope that these tips help you to feel confident to grapple with any concerns you might have. Every employer, role, and set of personal circumstances are different, so do get in touch if you would like some specific advice; I’d be very happy to help.

Emma Sangeelee Partner | Employment Edwin Coe LLP d: +44(0)20 7691 4079 | t: +44(0)20 7691 4000 | e:

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