"IF THOSE women would just keep their legs shut, I wouldn't have to pay maternity leave." That's what one woman's boss felt free to say when she and three other colleagues were all pregnant at the same time.
A staggering one in two Australian women experience discrimination at work because of pregnancy or their obligations as a parent, according to a report by the Australian Human Rights Commission. But Kate Jenkins,
Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner, has noticed a new pattern emerging. While there is no specific data yet, the Commission has received an increasing number of inquiries over the past year from working women who are either pregnant with their second child or who already have two or more children.
Marie, 30, is a case in point. After her second child she attempted to return to a successful career in the public service in a part-time capacity but suffered "incessant bullying."
Her job was restructured four times, her team changed three times and her desk location was moved four times. She says this was done in order to "frustrate me to resign" and managers were open about this, telling her: "There is no place in the public service for part-timers."
"Meetings of importance were scheduled on the days I was not there and then I was harassed for not attending, even though my children had been sick," Marie says.
"My loyalties were questioned and in the end I requested a voluntary redundancy and received it, because I had no intent of ever returning to that place.
"It shattered me and I ended up struggling with depression and anxiety. "I'm now a full time stay at home mum and I'm studying by distance," she says.
A story like this should be an anomaly. But it isn't. While researching this article I heard numerous disturbing accounts of 'second baby syndrome' from women who were:
- Forced to resign or take a redundancy
- Forced to take a pay cut
- Told there was no job for them after returning from maternity leave
- Given work far below their level or no work at all
- Harassed on maternity leave
- Refused training and promotion
- Given poor performance reviews
- Criticised for going to medial appointments or taking leave to look after sick children
- Verbally insulted and bullied because of their pregnancy or parental status
Ms Jenkins has a theory about why discrimination kicks in with a second baby. Before a woman has her first baby, she is usually working full-time.
Then she goes on maternity leave and returns part-time. At this stage of her career the woman is likely to be valued less as a part-time worker and is therefore often given lesser work. Her employer may even create a new role for her. Then it comes time to take leave for a second baby.
There's a view that: "Well, I've given you a go and this is really taking it too far," Ms Jenkins says.
There are plenty of laws to prevent this discrimination on the basis of pregnancy or parental status. For starters there's the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and the Fair Work Act 2009 backed up by workplace health and safety laws and international obligations. There is also equal opportunity legislation in every state and territory.
However, Ms Jenkins says the laws are frequently ignored because of formidable workplace prejudices "which are often completely without basis in fact."
"You can't win either way. If you want to return part-time you get lesser work. If you want to return to full-time people question whether you are really a committed mother and none of these things happen to men who have children."
Before her current role Ms Jenkins, who has five children, worked in a private law firm where she became a partner.
"If I had had children already, I question whether I would have been appointed partner. I think that the barriers are still there," she says.
Jennifer, an experienced teacher, is 23-weeks pregnant with her second baby and works part-time. Her desk has been moved into a "spare" room and she has "no particular job."
"I have never dreaded coming to work but on Tuesday nights I feel angry and sick with the thought of turning up to work in the morning.
"I have so much to offer the school but they don't really care," she says.
Kate Jenkins points out that discrimination against pregnant women or women with caring responsibilities directly impacts their earning capacity, ability to progress to senior roles and ability to amass superannuation.
Employers are also missing out because they "limit the field of good people that they can employ" and also "lose the good people that they have invested in," Ms Jenkins says.
Because of the changing nature of family and work, Ms Jenkins believes employers need to stop thinking in full time equivalent positions, and start thinking about flexible ways to get the work done. She says companies like ANZ and Telstra are setting great examples.
And if we're talking cold hard figures, the benefits of greater female workplace participation are potentially huge. A 2012 report by The Grattan Institute, estimates that if women's participation in the workforce increased by just 6 per cent, the national GDP would increase by about $25 billion.
That's a big pay-off for improving our attitudes to working mums.
Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.