Women's rights during pregnancy and early parenthood

Childbirth is far from a novel concept, but many people are confused about what legal rights new and expectant mothers have.

The Daily Mail recently reported a story of a woman who was seen breastfeeding on a train by the conductor and told to “do whatever you are doing in the toilet”. What this conductor may not have known is that the woman had every right to breastfeed her child in public. In fact, it is illegal to ask a nursing mother to move away from a public place to feed her baby. This story is a prime example of a gross violation of a woman’s rights, and of the wide difference in opinion of what is right and wrong when it comes to pregnancy and childcare.

As a parent, it is your legal responsibility to look after your child until they turn 18-years-old. You take responsibility for registering them for school, authorising medical treatment and applying for financial assistance. While these are your responsibilities as the guardian of a child, it’s the government’s responsibility, through introducing apt legislation, to ensure that you are given ample rights to do this. These legal rights extend to employment.

It’s illegal to be discriminated against by an employer for being pregnant or a mother. However, it does happen. A trainee lawyer recently filed a case for compensation after she was refused a permanent job at a top law firm because she was pregnant. Sadly, pregnancy is often viewed negatively by some employers because of the legal requirements concerning time off from work and paid maternity leave. 

But it’s a legal right for all working women to take Statutory Maternity Leave when they require it. This allows women to take 52 weeks off work starting, at the earliest, 11 weeks prior to the expected week of birth. This allows women to take time off from work to care for their baby and protects their employment rights while they’re on leave. Women are also entitled to Statutory Maternity Pay, but only if you have worked for your employer for at least 26 weeks up to the 15th week before the expected birth, earn at least £109 per week and give the correct notice to your employer (at least 15 weeks prior to the due date).

For employers, there are a number of things that need to be considered if there is a new or expectant mother among the staff. Particular health and safety issues need to be addressed. For example, pregnant women usually require more rest breaks, and for pregnant and breastfeeding women there are legal requirements in place stating that employers need to provide a suitable rest place for the employee (standard office toilet facilities will not suffice).

In terms of work place health and safety issues, it’s not a legal requirement for your employer to conduct a work place risk assessment once you have informed them of your pregnancy. However, during general risk assessments, it’s advised that employers should take into consideration any additional risks which could apply to any new or expectant mothers amongst their staff. If you think anything in your workplace may be a risk to you during pregnancy or in early parenthood, then it’s wise to raise this with your employer. These risks could include continuous standing, manual handling, the use of chemical or biological agents or excessive international travel. Balancing your work life with your soon-to-be or new mothering role can be difficult, but if you know your rights in terms of maternity and employment law then you’ll be prepared to navigate the path of parenthood. 

If you have any questions about maternity rights and early parenthood, please download the QualitySolicitors legal maternity guide.


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