Businesses are uniting to sign up for the ‘Working Forward pledge’, a nationwide initiative being spearheaded here

Every year in the UK, 54,000 women are forced out of their job for getting pregnant. Those who do return to the working world after having their baby often face discrimination (whether conscious or unconscious), a company culture that doesn’t support their needs, and, subsequently, a stalled career.

And let’s not forget the dads. The introduction of the shared parental leave policy in 2015 reflected the fact that more fathers than ever are keen to take on increased childrearing responsibilities. Yet many men feel unable to request flexible or part-time working given that a lot of companies are, at best, unsure how to handle, or, at worst, openly hostile to such requests.

Make workplaces the best they can be for pregnant women and new parents

It’s truly a sad state of affairs – but one that can be (gradually) rectified if employers are willing to throw aside their outdated practices and attitudes to parents in the workplace and start afresh with a new mindset. And, here in Manchester, dozens of businesses are preparing to do just that.

The ‘Greater Manchester is Working Forward’ event, held last week, invited employers to “come together to celebrate Greater Manchester's commitment to ending pregnancy, maternity and paternity discrimination”. It’s based around organisations signing up for the Working Forward pledge “to make workplaces the best they can be for pregnant women and new parents.”

The room was packed with over eighty representatives from businesses of all shapes, sizes and specialisms, all keen to know more and play their part in showing the rest of the country how it’s done.

TV presenter Helen Skelton, host of the event and a long-time advocate of mums in the workplace, got things started with her assertion that she was “sick and tired” of women feeling they have to choose between either ‘family’ or ‘career’, but noted the introduction of the pledge means that “we’re on the verge of something really exciting”.

She was followed by Caroline Water, Deputy Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), who reminded us that “when more women work, economies grow” and came up trumps with what would be the quote of the day: “for too long, women have suffered the subtle bigotry of low expectations”. Wowser.

Pregnant then Screwed’s Joeli Brearley then shared some incredibly disturbing real-life stories of women who’ve suffered from unfair treatment after telling their employers they were pregnant, including that of one woman whose boss greeted her announcement with a demand that she have an abortion or her career “would be over”. These were obviously extreme, but not isolated, examples which served an important purpose in reminding attendees that, aside from the very strong business case for keeping women in the workplace, there’s also a moral responsibility for us all to treat mothers better.

2018 5 17 Joeli Brearley Pregnant Then Screwed
Joeli Brearley from Pregnant Then Screwed in 2017

From there we heard from Sue Coe, Principle: Work and Employment at the EHRC, who explained a little more about the support provided through the scheme, and then a group of employers who are already taking steps to ‘work forward’. They highlighted that, given the fact that many sectors are currently facing a skills shortage and the prohibitive cost of recruiting new staff, businesses should be doing more to keep hold of the talent they have.

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham rounded the day off, promising to throw his weight behind Working Forward. He cited last year’s revelation that 12,000 Greater Manchester children who started education in September weren’t actually ‘school ready’ as evidence that businesses need to do more to help “everybody be the best parents they can be”. He noted that a Greater Manchester Good Employer Charter is currently being pulled together, designed to “support employers to reach best practice, helping them to grow and provide the good jobs we need”. And, referencing the Suffragettes, he emphasised that we’re the best city to be the first to embrace Working Forward because “we led the fight back then… And we want to lead the fight now.”

As the event drew to a close, attendees queued to sign up for the pledge.  

Of course, this is just the beginning, and there’s a clear recognition that, no matter your commitment to this cause, you can’t just flick a switch and solve the issue – committing to the Working Forward pledge could well involve transforming the entire culture of your business,  bringing brand new policies into force, designing roles differently, providing line managers with the training they need to support new parents, and ensuring all of your staff feel empowered to ask for more help when it comes to getting that elusive work-life balance right.

But, as Burnham noted, in a city where we’re always striving to lead rather than follow, you can bet we’re not going to shy away from heading the charge here.

Businesses of any size can sign up to the Working Forward pledge. It’s free to join and you’ll receive resources and materials designed to help you create a better working environment for pregnant women and new parents.