Maternity leave should be a period of joy and tranquillity but, all too often, it is marred by discrimination. As an Employment Tribunal (ET) decision showed, however, employers who treat new mothers unfavourably can expect to pay a high reputational and financial price (Shipp v City Sprint UK Ltd).
The case concerned a group marketing director who was deeply upset by comments made by male colleagues after they heard of her pregnancy. One asked her when she had stopped taking contraception and how she thought having a child would affect her long-term career prospects. Another told her that, once her child was in nursery, she would not want to come back to work.
During her absence from the office on maternity leave, she was not consulted about a major restructuring exercise carried out by her employer. It was a complete shock to her when she received an email out of the blue, announcing that her role was at risk of redundancy. She was offered a new position, with a different job title, lower status and less pay, and was dismissed when she declined to accept it.
Ruling on her case, the ET found that the colleagues' comments amounted to sexual harassment. They were unwanted and she reasonably perceived them as having created a humiliating and degrading environment for her. As regards her purported redundancy and the restructuring exercise, she was treated unfavourably because she was on maternity leave.
There was a stark difference between her treatment and that of colleagues who were working during the restructuring process. The new position in fact involved the same role as before and was made deliberately unattractive to her. There was a sham consultation process but, in reality, it had already been decided that there was no place for her in the new structure.
The ET noted that she spent the larger part of her maternity leave trying to preserve her job. She testified that she had been placed under immense stress and anxiety during the last six months of her maternity leave and that what should have been a cherished period in her life had been tarnished.
Her complaints of maternity and sex discrimination, unfair dismissal and breach of contract were upheld and the ET awarded her a total of £35,715 in compensation and interest, including £25,000 for injury to her feelings. Had it not been for her successful efforts to find alternative work following her dismissal, her award would have been substantially greater.