My early years were not exactly traditional. My parents were actors, so the nature of their employment was sporadic. When I was a baby, my mother took a temporary job and my father looked after me. His enduring memory of this time involves endless trips to McDonald's, the only public place he could find with nappy-changing facilities accessible to men. For the most part, my parents shared childcare, and I count myself lucky to have been raised equally by both my mother and father. I realise this is unusual; certainly, 30 years ago, it was far from the norm. I suppose I owe it to the profession of acting, which—for all its faults—is relatively fair in terms of gender; rarely is a man hired to play a woman's role.
A recent report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (Adams et al, 2016) has revealed that many women in the UK face workplace discrimination during pregnancy or around maternity leave. Despite such discrimination being prohibited under the Equality Act 2010, 77% of the 3254 women surveyed reported a negative or discriminatory experience during pregnancy or maternity leave, or on their return to work. Such experiences included: negative impact on job opportunities, status or job security; risks to health or welfare; financial loss; harassment or negative comments; feeling forced to leave their job; and negative experiences related to breastfeeding.
Experiences such as these may have an impact on maternal mental health, posing a risk to women and their infants. The additional strain on a couple's relationship that may be caused by these issues can also have a detrimental impact on the health and wellbeing of the family. The impact of social inequalities is evident, as those women most likely to report negative experiences include single mothers, women from minority ethnic groups, and those with an existing long-term condition. Crucially, one in 10 women said they were discouraged from attending antenatal appointments during work time, which is particularly worrying when we consider the importance of screening and health promotion at these appointments.
Of women who had chosen to stop breastfeeding, 19% said that returning to work had influenced this decision. While health professionals strive to improve the UK's breastfeeding rates, it seems many employers are not doing their part to support female employees to breastfeed or express milk at work.
One might argue that women affected by such discrimination should take action; however, the survey results revealed that 27% of women who considered, but decided against, going through their employer's internal grievance procedure said the prospect was too daunting. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is now calling on the Government to address the barriers women face in accessing justice.
Altogether, the report makes for frustrating reading. And so, once again, I look to the acting profession to offer a glimmer of hope. In the recent BBC series The Night Manager, Olivia Colman not only played a leading character who was originally, in the John le Carré novel on which the series was based, a man, but she did so while pregnant. Consequently, her character was pregnant too. This pregnancy was largely incidental; it was seldom mentioned, and in no way used as a plot device or to define the character. The underlying message was: sometimes, women are pregnant—even women in high-powered jobs. The outcome of the programme's plot would have been no different had she not been pregnant. Pregnancy and motherhood are, quite simply, part of life for some people. Employers would do well to remember that.