Discrimination against working parents still rife

Anna Uren
Relieving Research Officer

The larger the organisation, the more likely parents were to experience discrimination.

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:

  1. there needs to be improved understanding of rights and
  2. harmful stereotypes, practices and behaviours need to be
  3. strong policies must be supported by resources for improved
  4. 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.

Pregnancy and parenthood: your rights

Temporary teachers
Temporary teachers can be particularly vulnerable to discrimination due to pregnancy.
There have been cases where temporary teachers upon disclosing they were pregnant, have had their temporary engagement altered or terminated purely because they were pregnant. This is discriminatory and absolutely unacceptable.

It can also have implications on a teacher’s ability to access paid maternity leave. To qualify for paid maternity leave, a temporary teacher must have:

1. 40 continuous weeks’ service in the two years prior to the anticipated date of birth, and
2. a temporary engagement which covers the anticipated date of birth.

There have been cases where women were told that they would not be offered any temporary work because they were pregnant. This too is discriminatory.

Teachers who experience issues in relation to temporary engagements due to pregnancy, should contact the Federation immediately for advice.

Maternity leave and return to work
Teachers have the ability to access a variety of provisions designed to support and encourage women returning to the workforce from maternity leave. These include:

1. Part time maternity leave: Teachers have a right to take maternity leave on a part time basis. Any teacher who applies for part time maternity leave and meets obstruction or refusal is advised to consult the Federation immediately. Teachers must apply seven weeks in advance of the date on which they wish to commence leave.

2. Right to request to work part time until your child reaches school age: If you wish to continue to work part time after you have exhausted your maternity leave provision, you can request the right to work part time until your child reaches school age.

You should contact your principal to discuss your return to work part time, indicating the days you wish to work. Be prepared to compromise, but that being said, if those are the only days you are able to access child care, please make this clear to the principal. If the principal is insistent that you return to work on certain days for which you do not have access to child care, and he/she indicates that you will not be approved leave, you can lodge an appeal with Employee Services. In your appeal, you will need to provide a letter which outlines why you are unable to work on certain days, and it would be helpful to provide a letter from the child care centre indicating the only vacancy they have for your child is on those days. You can contact the Federation for advice and support in lodging an appeal.

Lactation breaks

Teachers returning to work from maternity leave who wish to continue breastfeeding, are entitled to access lactation breaks.

“Determination 3 of 2011: Lactation Breaks” provides that teachers who work more than four hours per day are entitled to access two 30-minute lactation breaks during the day, and those working less than four hours are entitled to one 30-minute lactation break per day.

The school will need to provide access to a clean, lockable room; access to a power point, and a refrigerator.

Lactation breaks should be negotiated with the principal prior to return to work. Any teacher who experiences difficulty in negotiating access to lactation breaks, should contact the Federation for advice.

Charmaine O'Sheades, Women's Coordinator