The maternal body at work: women's experiences of accessing employment rights in relation to fertility, pregnancy and birth

Lead Research Organisation: Queen Mary, University of London
Department Name: School of Business and Management

Abstract

This project examines the physical and mental impact of women's experiences of fertility, pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding on employment, highlighting gaps in employer expectations and provision for pregnant women and women returning to work after childbirth, which may prevent women from accessing maternity-related employment rights. Before the COVID-19 pandemic research showed that up to three-quarters of new mothers had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during their pregnancy or maternity leave, leading many to leave their jobs. This research takes on a greater urgency as many now fear that economic recession will result in a new wave of unfair redundancies and unlawful discrimination towards pregnant women and new mothers as businesses and organisations seek to adjust to the new economic circumstances. In partnership with the UK's leading maternity rights charity Maternity Action, this study will examine the dissonance between employer expectations, attitudes and legal understandings and women's lived realities and seek to locate more precisely where intervention could bring about change. Through a mixture of methods, including a possible survey of employers and employees, focus groups and semi-structured interviews with women, facilitated by Maternity Action, this project will explore the tensions that arise for women when trying to access their employment rights as a result of, for example, fertility treatment, pregnancy-related illness, health and safety concerns in pregnancy, and birth and birth-related concerns as well as breastfeeding. According to data shared by Maternity Action, at least 12% of calls to its support line relate to women facing difficulties accessing such rights, pointing to tensions between what employers believe the effects of pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding ought to be, and the provisions they should consequently reasonably be expected to make, on the one hand, and women's lived experiences of the transformation of their bodies during pregnancy, birth and through breastfeeding on the other hand. This is in line with the small but growing literature on the maternal body at work which points to the ways in which maternal bodies are treated as abject, leaky, messy, fleshy and unpredictable things, contrasting with the rational, cool and measured associations we have with work, and subsequently marginalized. This project will seek to bridge the gap between employer perceptions and expectations and women's experiences, and will work with Maternity Action's extensive network of policy makers, employers, NGOs, trade unions and legal experts to develop recommendations based on the research findings for interventions in policy and practice. The project will strengthen the relationship between Maternity Action and the Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity (CRED) in the School of Business and Management at Queen Mary - of which the two supervisors are Co-Directors. CRED undertakes critical scholarship in equality and diversity, underpinned by principles of social justice and inclusivity, and seeks to engage with the non-academic community to produce impact from research. This collaboration will bring theoretical understanding and debate on equality, inequalities and diversity to bear on an important current area of public policy concerning the improvement of maternity rights, increasing fathers' involvement in childcare, and balancing motherhood with employment.

Publications

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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000703/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2602154 Studentship ES/P000703/1 01/10/2021 30/09/2024 Gabriella Francesca Stringer