The findings of a Human Rights Commission report into pregnancy and return to work discrimination are alarming and show that a lot of work remains to be done to eliminate the damage being caused by discrimination to the individual, the organisation and society more broadly.
Nearly half of all mothers experience discrimination at some point during pregnancy, parental leave or on return to work. Despite taking much shorter periods of leave and being less likely to request flexible work, more than a quarter of fathers also experienced discrimination. While things are not as bad in education, still more than a third of mothers within the field experienced discrimination.
The most common types of discrimination related to pay, conditions and duties, health and safety and career advancement.
Federation’s submission to the review stated the most common experience of permanent teachers was difficulty accessing the right to request part time work, particularly for those in promotions positions.
The most common experience for temporary or casual teachers was for work to suddenly dry up upon falling pregnant.
Discriminatory access to professional learning and allocation of duties was a problem across the board.
These experiences have lifelong consequences and are continuing to exacerbate the underrepresentation of women in senior executive positions in schools and the significantly lower levels of superannuation of women at retirement.
Of those parents who reported experiencing discrimination, the Commission found more than one in five did not return to the workforce at all.
The Commission has offered a number of reasons for the high levels of discrimination. Firstly, there are still widespread social gender norms and stereotypes regarding parenting responsibilities and the model worker. Secondly, many employers and employees are not fully aware of relevant rights and entitlements. Many people did not initially realise they had experienced discrimination, and only 4 per cent of people reported that they had made a formal complaint.
One surprise finding was that the larger the organisation, the more likely parents were to experience discrimination, even though the organisation may have quite positive policies in place. The Commission identified that it is quite common for there to be a substantial gap between policy and practice. Given the size of the Department of Education and Communities, this suggests the employer needs to be more proactive in preventing discrimination. In schools, while individuals usually don’t set out with the intention to discriminate, this can be the outcome when forced to make decisions with competing priorities of pregnant teachers, other staff and students.
Thanks to many years of campaigning by Federation there have been steady improvements in working conditions and entitlements for working parents in NSW public education. However, the valuable contributions of members in the submission process, and the Human Rights Commission’s report, show that there is still a long way to go.
The report’s recommendations fall under four principles:
- there needs to be improved understanding of rights and
- harmful stereotypes, practices and behaviours need to be
- strong policies must be supported by resources for improved
- this form of discrimination must be closely monitored for improvements.
These principles should provide food for thought for everyone. Particularly in the context of Local Schools, Local Decisions all teachers need to understand the implications of this type of discrimination. Teachers must not allow the Department to walk away from its responsibility to eliminate all forms of discrimination in its workplaces.