Pregnancy discrimination still widespread in Australian workplace culture

Published: 14/03/2023
Category: Workers rights
Published: 14/03/2023
Category: Workers rights

It’s 2023 and, yes, pregnancy discrimination is alive and well.  

Deakin University senior researcher Cameo Dalley and her team had just won a grant to fund their research project.  

But when Dalley informed a senior woman professor that she was pregnant, the atmosphere changed completely.  

“She made all these comments about, ‘How do you plan to do your job and have a baby?’” Dalley said. 

Within a fortnight, Dalley was told she no longer had a contract offer for the project. And the rationale given? A ‘change of heart’.

A widespread occurrence

“I want to draw attention to this so other people are treated better than I was,” Dalley wrote in an opinion piece

Although official reports of workplace pregnancy discrimination are low, the Australian Human Rights Commission found that those numbers don’t reflect the reality. One in two mothers reported experienced discrimination during pregnancy, parental leave or when returning to work.  

This often includes women finding themselves unemployed, demoted, restructured out of a job, or the victim of adverse action before, during or shortly after a period of unpaid parental leave.  

It can also be difficult to access basic rights under the National Employment Standards such as the right to be transferred to an appropriate safe job during pregnancy or – if no such job exists – the right to be paid no safe job leave

At a workplace like Deakin University where the majority of workers are employed as causals or contractors, pregnant workers may not be in a position to pursue a discrimination complaint.

“Deciding to pursue my claim of pregnancy discrimination through Deakin’s internal processes and now through the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal hasn’t been easy,” Dalley said. 

“The support of the National Tertiary Education Union and my partner John have made it possible.”

Pregnancy discrimination via medical surveillance

It’s not only white-collar workers who can face pregnancy discrimination: blue-collar employers have used surveillance against their pregnant employees. 

‘Medical surveillance’ is the term often used to describe dodgy employers gaining access to employee medical records and histories for coercive purposes. 

Blue-collar members of the United Workers Union (UWU) have described how their employers have requested Certificates of Capacity to show they are able to return to work.  

An UWU report explained the harms of this practice: 

“[The worker’s] GP, unaware of the employment dynamic, will often request ‘light duties’ for their patient, believing they are being helpful.”  

“However, the employer will then interpret such a request as proof the woman is unable to return to her pre-leave position and use this medical certificate to undermine her legal right to return to the same position held before taking leave.”

Read More: Privacy at work

Pregnancy discrimination is just one example of medical surveillance which can take on even more extreme forms. A particularly alarming case in 2019 saw members of the Electrical Trades Union successfully stop forced blood tests for workers.  

Unfortunately, privacy laws are not as strong as they should be. There are very few rights for workers to privacy or transparency in how employers and other corporations use, store and sell data.

How to build parent friendly workplaces

If you think you’re facing pregnancy discrimination at work, contact your union – even if you’re not sure. Your union is there to give you information you need and support you with action you want to take. 

It’s undeniable that sexism is a huge problem in many workplaces. However, union members have made progress in leaps and bounds for workers who are pregnant or are already parents.  

Laws to extend paid parental leave passed through parliament this month after years of union-led campaigning. 

Union members are also standing up for fairer rosters for working parents and new laws mean working parents will be in a stronger position to request flexible working arrangements.  

When you’re in a union, it’s so much easier to make your workplace more inclusive and supportive. As a union member, you have workmates beside you every step of the way and by coming together we can create accessible and inclusive workplaces for all.

Want to create a fair and equal workplace?

Cover photo credit: Leah Kelley

Pregnancy discrimination still widespread in Australian workplace culture

Pregnancy discrimination still widespread in Australian workplace culture