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Equality and discrimination

Five legal protections soon-to-be or new parents should know about

Whether pregnant or returning to a career in pharmacy, there are several ways the law protects new parents.

Five legal protections for new parents

Source: Mclean / Shutterstock.com

Mind the gap logo New parents, and those thinking of having children, have valid reason to be concerned about the potential impact this would have on their pharmacy career. An investigation by The Pharmaceutical Journal revealed a statistically significant gender pay gap of 6.4% in favour of male employees, with some of this thought to be attributable to women being more likely to take time out for family commitments.

That research followed a study from the University of Birmingham in March 2018, which showed that only 36% of UK female pharmacists hold the most senior positions.

This is concerning in a profession that is almost two-thirds female. A 2019 Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) survey found more than one in five respondents identified pregnancy and maternity as a career barrier. Sandra Gidley, president of the RPS, agrees that this is an issue and says it is one the Society is planning to address in 2020.

“We are serious about tackling issues of diversity and this is one we need to look at. Some women do feel they have been held back by having children.”

There are clear social barriers for both mothers and fathers. Figures from the University of Birmingham for 2018/2019 financial year show that only 1% of eligible new parents took shared parental leave. This gives parents the ability to share time off work to care for their child within the first year of birth or adoption (see Box 1). 

Box 1: Shared parental leave

From 2015, both birth parents or adoptive parents have been able to take part in shared parental leave in the first year after childbirth, if they are eligible.

Lee Jefcott, employment law partner at Brabners LLP, explains that shared leave allows more flexibility for parents to both take time off to care for their newborn and for mothers to get back to work sooner if that is what they want to do. “As long as they are eligible, men (or the other partner) have the right to take leave — employers can’t stop that. But the take up hasn’t been what everyone would have hoped for.”

The impact on career progression is the top reason preventing men from taking more than two weeks of leave after having a baby. Sometimes, this is because couples have taken financial considerations into account, but there are also lots of entrenched attitudes around men taking time off work to care for children.

For pharmacists, one important aspect to consider is revalidation, which Pharmacy Support says is a big source of concern for pharmacists on maternity leave.

They need to fill out the General Pharmaceutical Council’s exceptional circumstances form which, like all other maternity entitlements, require proof with the MAT B1 form issued by the doctor or midwife after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Gidley says it is essential that everyone knows and understands their rights as new parents. “If you think you are being treated unfairly, there is a good chance you might be,” she adds.

There are five ways the law protects working parents that everyone should be aware of.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society launched its pharmacy inclusion and diversity programme in August 2019. Find out more about what the Society is doing for members here

1. Pregnancy is a protected characteristic

Pregnancy, under the Equality Act 2010, is a protected characteristic. This means that employers are prohibited from discriminating against a woman because she is pregnant, on maternity leave (or intends to take maternity leave), or is breastfeeding. This legislation extends from all current employees to newly advertised roles and even the job interview process itself.

Danielle Hunt, chief executive at Pharmacist Support— an independent charity working for pharmacists and their families, former pharmacists and pharmacy students — says the charity has previously been contacted by women who have been fired or had contracts terminated by their employer after learning about their pregnancy. She adds that the charity also receives enquiries about employers not accommodating pregnancy needs.

The law is clear, stating that a pregnant woman cannot be treated unfairly, unfavourably or victimised

“For example, no workplace assessment [is] done, as is required; and no adjustments made where a woman wants to work close to her due date, but needs to be able to sit down occasionally.

“Also, [there can be] problems with having time off for maternity check-ups — in some cases, they may get the time, but are not paid, or are only allowed to take them at the beginning or end of the day. We’ve also heard of instances where the individual has been asked to pay for locum cover.”

The law is clear, stating that a pregnant woman must not be treated unfairly, unfavourably or victimised, such as being removed from working on a project or suddenly being told they cannot do their job. If time off work is taken for a pregnancy-related illness, this must be noted separately to other sick days and cannot trigger a meeting or review under a work absence policy. Employers are also obliged to carry out a workplace risk assessment once they have been informed of the pregnancy.

Pregnant mothers have the right to reasonable time off to attend antenatal appointments and expectant fathers or partners also have a right to time off work to attend two antenatal appointments.

2. Statutory maternity leave and pay

The legal requirement for employers is to provide 52 weeks of maternity leave in the UK or, if appropriate, statutory adoption leave for one partner.

For the first 39 weeks of leave, new mothers can receive either statutory maternity pay or a maternity allowance (if ineligible for statutory maternity pay). Statutory maternity pay equates to 6 weeks at 90% of average weekly earnings, followed by £148.63 per week or 90% of weekly earnings (whichever is lower) for employees who have worked for the company for the past 26 weeks.

However, depending on the organisation or company, parents may be entitled to more. Some offer enhanced periods of full pay for maternity or adoption leave before rates drop to the minimum statutory levels. In the NHS, for example, anyone who has had a year’s continuous service is entitled to 8 weeks of full pay, 18 weeks of half pay and 13 weeks of statutory pay.

3. Right to return to the same job

Lee Jefcott, employment law partner at Brabners LLP, points out that the law is pretty prescriptive around returning from maternity leave. “There is the right to return to the same job, on the same terms and conditions, unless the position no longer exists,” he says. And, as long as employees give eight weeks’ notice, they can return to work whenever they like within the maternity leave period.

Women on maternity leave are also entitled to any pay review they would normally have

While it is possible to be made redundant when on maternity leave, an employer would be breaking the law if they selected a woman for redundancy because she was pregnant or away from work looking after her newborn. The law also states that a woman on maternity leave must be offered a suitable alternative vacancy, if there is one, as soon as her post is at risk.

Women on maternity leave are also entitled to any pay review they would normally have and, if it is related to performance, it should be based on their work before taking leave.

For anyone, returning to work after substantial time off can be quite daunting, but that is where ‘keeping in touch' days may help (see Box 2).

Box 2: ‘Keeping in touch’ days

Anyone on maternity or adoption leave is entitled to ten keeping in touch days without it affecting their leave or pay. The same is true for shared parental leave where couples are allowed up to 20 ‘split’ days. And for anyone who works more than one job, this rule applies to each job separately. There are several useful ways to take these days including attending training, attending a staff meeting or helping to settle back in once maternity or paternity leave is coming to an end.

4. Flexible working arrangements

Increasingly, organisations are realising that offering flexibility for parents returning to work after the birth of a child will make them an attractive and competitive employer.

A spokesperson for Boots explained that they offer several flexible working contracts to help employees to have a better work–life balance. “Currently, 41% of our pharmacists work part time (30 hours or less),” they added

Jane Davies, human resources director at LloydsPharmacy, says: “We understand that new and existing parents may need more flexibility to allow them to focus on their family which is why we have a number of policies and processes in place to support their return to work.” This includes a recently introduced job share programme that allows pharmacists to ‘buddy up’ to work part-time hours.

All employees have the right to ask for flexible working. Employers must deal with the requests in a reasonable manner to avoid ending up in an employment tribunal. This means employers must properly consider the proposal, weigh up the pros and cons, and holding a meeting to discuss it. There must also be the opportunity for employees to appeal a decision. What employers cannot do is say no without a suitable reason or explanation.

Gidley says that for some community pharmacists the option of flexible working may be difficult to accommodate because of opening hours. “If the pharmacist feels their employer is understanding of their needs they are more likely to stay. It has got to be about balance.”

5. Discrimination claims

When returning from maternity leave, many women are concerned about being overlooked or being on the back foot in terms of their career.

“Until you get to the age of 35 years there is not much of a gap [in pay] at all. It then starts to develop and the chief reason is that when mothers return to work, they are not able to or do not want to work in the jobs that pay the best,” says Jefcott.

“Sometimes that is about a perception that they would not be able to do the job, be there for their clients or travel to meetings and so on.”

He adds that his firm deals with employment tribunals for maternity discrimination, but further down the line it can become more difficult to raise a case because the woman may not want to highlight the issue because it is very stressful and, legally, there needs to be evidence that the behaviour is recurring and not a one off.

Further advice can be sought from unions such as the Pharmacists’ Defence Association Union or Unison, if a member. Should an employee feel they are being discriminated against as a parent, there are plenty of sources of advice on what legal recourse they may have (see Box 3). It is generally recommended to try and resolve the issue with their employer before raising a formal grievance or taking the issue further. 

Box 3: Where to go to for more information and advice

About the author:

Emma Wilkinson is a freelance journalist.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2020.20207485

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