Eight things you need to know about your legal rights if you’re a working mother

Are you a mother who has returned to work, or is planning to? Monaco Solicitors share eight things about your legal rights you need to know.

Employers often wax lyrical about the work-life balance and flexible approach to work they offer their employees – whether that involves part-time compressed hours or a hybrid working arrangement that allows for flexibility to work in the office or at home.

The need to work flexibly often arises first in a working life because of caring responsibilities. Recent legislative changes allow parents to share caring responsibilities, but primary caring responsibilities for young children and elderly parents most commonly falls on women.

Balancing or juggling work and family life can have an adverse impact on mental health and wellbeing. We don’t profess to have all the answers, but here are eight things you need to know about your legal rights as a working mother.

1) Equality legislation

The Equality Act 2010 aims to protect employees from being treated differently due to sex, marital status and gender assignment. 

The Equality Act embargoes treating women less favourably because of a protected characteristic, but also prevents employers from imposing policies or practices that disadvantage women unless they can be objectively justified. 

A company who refuses to consider a part-time working arrangement may be guilty of indirect sex discrimination.

2) Risk assessments

Employers have a general obligation to assess risk factors in the workplace and, specifically, identify any dangers faced by women of child bearing age, particularly those who are pregnant, have given birth in the last six months or who are breastfeeding.  

Contrary to popular wisdom, there isn’t a specific obligation to undertake a risk assessment once an employer is notified of a pregnancy. However, good practice will mean that employers will take the opportunity to perform a risk assessment and identify if any measures should be put in place to reduce risk or modify duties. 

In some industrial contexts, or in particularly high risk roles, there may be a need to suspend certain employees on full pay or move them to other duties. 

Once you have returned to work, a breastfeeding parent should be offered facilities to breastfeed and/or express milk – not in a toilet, but in a clean, private and safe place.

3) Maternity leave

There is a compulsory period of maternity leave for the first two weeks following child birth. Thereafter, as an employee you have the right to take up to 26 weeks of Ordinary Maternity Leave and 26 weeks of Additional Maternity Leave. We discuss maternity pay below.

4) Maternity pay

There isn’t an absolute right to paid maternity leave. The amount of pay will depend on factors including whether you are employed and for how long. 

Most working women will be eligible to receive either Statutory Maternity Pay or Maternity Allowance for up to 39 weeks. Many employers will offer much more generous maternity pay.

Recently Diageo announced it was extending its pay to offer 26-weeks fully paid parental leave regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or whether the employees had become parents biologically, via surrogacy or adoption.

5) Your right to return to work

Within the first six months following maternity or adoption leave, women have the right to return to their own job, or to a comparable job in the following six months. 

We regularly advise clients on redundancy situations occurring during maternity leave or just after they have returned to work. There is legislation to ensure that those on parental leave are offered any suitable role in preference to others facing redundancy, but the reality is often very different. 

6) Shared parental leave

Taking time off to look after a new baby or child used to be for women only, but now both parents have the right to share leave and take time off work in the first year of a new child in a family as shared parental leave.

With shared parental leave (SPL), you can share up to 50 weeks of leave, and up to 37 weeks of pay between you. This needs to be taken in the first year after your child is born (or is placed with your family).

You can take SPL in blocks separated by periods of working, or you can choose to take it all in one go. You can also choose to take time off work together, or to stagger your leave and pay.

It is crucial to the development of a flexible approach to work and family life that more men take parental leave. However, research shows the take up may be as low as just 2%.

7) Time off work for family and dependents

Having children means that emergencies happen, and they get sick from time to time. When this happens, you have the right to take reasonable time off to look after dependents. Despite not having the right to pay, at least this is a start.

The right isn’t just in relation to children and applies to other relatives too.  Fundamentally, this is a right that all employees are entitled to – irrespective of length of service and, importantly, gender. 

Just for fun, do a poll of your colleagues and see who has taken emergency unpaid leave. What does it reveal about gender roles in 21st century families?

8) Flexible working

Flexible working arrangements usually start with a request by the employee in response to a change in family life. 

The legislation regarding a flexible working request is clunky and sets out expected timeframes to meet and discuss the  request. In my view, the most effective flexible working arrangements start with a conversation – where the employee scopes out the request, what they would like / its viability and what benefits it might offer the employer.

There are undoubted benefits to flexible working, such as improved productivity, commitment of staff and better staff retention.

It is a mistake to think that flexible working is merely a question of reducing hours – it might be a hybrid arrangement, including job sharing, working from home, compressed hours, flexitime, annualised hours or staggered hours.

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Monaco Solicitors are employment law solicitors for employees.

Photo by Randy Rooibaatjie