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Workplace discrimination continues for women

By Amanda Cooklin, Heather Rowe and Jane Fisher - posted Monday, 19 November 2007

Currently in Australia, about 80 per cent of women are in paid employment before they begin their childbearing. Consequently, the issue of maternity leave is of high relevance to many women and workplaces, and has come onto the political agenda several times in recent years, including in the current 2007 Federal Election campaign. Access to 52 weeks of unpaid maternity leave is a statutory requirement for all Australian employees after twelve months of continuous employment under the Commonwealth Workplace Relations Act. There is no legislative provision for paid maternity leave however and it remains largely a matter for individual negotiation, employer discretion and in some sectors, collective enterprise bargaining.

Simultaneously, women’s mental health and well-being before and after childbirth has also received much recent attention from health professionals, service providers and researchers. It is now understood that women’s psychological and emotional well-being during pregnancy and after birth is affected by a range of factors including difficult current life events, previous episodes of depression, lack of support from family and friends and concerns about the pregnancy and childbirth.

There has been little research however investigating whether women’s employment conditions and events have any impact on mothers’ mental health and well-being during pregnancy. At other stages of the life course, poor working conditions and workplace stress can lead to worse psychological outcomes such as heightened depression and anxiety. In addition, the birth of a first baby heralds a range of demanding life changes including a move out of paid employment and into the unpaid work of caring for a new baby for the first time. Given that most women are employed as they await the birth of their first child, our recent study by investigators the Key Centre for Women’s Health in Society, University of Melbourne was designed to investigate the effect of employment related difficulties on maternal mental health during pregnancy.


We collected data from a representative sample of 165 employed women working in a range of occupations and industries who are expecting their first child.

The study, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, found that in spite of the legislative provision for unpaid maternity leave, only 60 per cent of the sample were able to access this leave to cover their absence from the workforce following the birth of their baby. This is a surprisingly low number of women using an entitlement that is legislatively protected and universally provided to eligible employees. The majority of the sample (75 per cent) was employed full-time and all of the employees interviewed were yet to have their careers interrupted by childbearing. It seems unlikely that nearly half of the sample would have been ineligible for unpaid maternity leave due to less than 12 months of continuous employment. This suggests that there is a high level of misinformation and a lack of knowledge about women’s rights at work around the birth of a baby, both on the part of the employer and employee. Despite, the legislative provision, unpaid maternity leave is still regarded as a privilege and not a right and many employees felt that they were unable to request this entitlement during their pregnancy.

Over half of our sample (54 per cent) was unable to access paid maternity leave. These women were forced to rely on sick leave, accrued annual leave or go without any independent income of their own following childbirth.

We also found that access to maternity leave was disproportionately higher for women who were working in professional, associate professional and managerial occupations. Only a few informed workplaces and employees were able to implement and access unpaid leave provision and women who were already marginalised in the workforce were further disadvantaged by not having any income protection or any guaranteed job to return to after the birth.

The alarming finding in this study was that almost one in five women reported pregnancy-related discrimination from their employer or at their workplace during their pregnancy. Examples of this included offensive comments, humiliating, bullying or derisive remarks. Some women’s jobs were terminated outright when they revealed their pregnancy, while others had opportunities withdrawn or were overlooked for training, development or promotion. All of these clearly contravene existing discrimination laws under the Sex Discrimination Act.

Not surprisingly, we found that these workplace events and conditions did have a measurable detrimental affect on women’s emotional and psychological health. Women who were discriminated against at their workplace, and/or had no access to maternity leave reported higher levels of distress, anxiety, anger and fatigue than women who were not experiencing these difficulties at their workplace in pregnancy.


Not accessing maternity leave means that women are faced with financial insecurity and no guaranteed job to return to after the birth - and this is very distressing at such a crucial life stage such as the birth of a baby. Sexual discrimination is highly distressing, humiliating, and a violation of employee rights and it is no surprise that this is accompanied by higher levels of distress and anxiety.

Workplace conditions are ultimately amenable to change and there are several recommendations arising from the results of this study. The statutory provision of unpaid maternity leave is ineffective and meaningless when the rate of utilisation is so low. The reasons for this low rate of uptake are unclear, but improved monitoring of leave provision by employers is needed. Many women in the study commented that they were unaware of their rights or of the details of unpaid maternity leave provision in Australia. Further public education would better inform employees about their eligibility for access to maternity-related entitlements and instill the understanding that legislative provision of unpaid maternity leave enshrines it as a right and not a luxury available to a privileged few.

These results also provide a strong argument for the universal provision of a government-funded paid maternity leave scheme. An absence from the paid workforce without any income security or financial independence is a distressing experience for anyone, but especially so for women approaching the birth of their first baby. Providing income security in the form of paid maternity leave would alleviate some of this concern. Other studies have shown that the provision of maternity leave actually facilitates women’s resumption of paid employment following childbirth.

The alarmingly high rate of pregnancy-related workplace discrimination indicates that in some workplaces at least, there is an existing climate that devalues female employees and leaves them vulnerable to anything from outright derision and harassment to inequitable employment opportunities. Data from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission finds that in most cases, pregnancy-related sexual discrimination at the workplace is under-reported. Very few women feel able to lodge a complaint before or after birth (possibly as they are trying to protect their already restricted currency in the job market). This in turn reinforces the sense that this discriminatory behaviour will go uncontested. It is vital however, that all Australian workplaces are informed that offensive comments and differential treatment on the basis of pregnancy are not only humiliating and a violation of women’s rights, but are in clear contravention of the Sexual Discrimination Act.

Our study clearly demonstrates that difficult working conditions and entitlements make a significant contribution to worse psychological and emotional health in pregnant women. Poor ante-natal emotional health is a known risk factor for mood disturbance after childbirth - so it is very important to understand the range of structural and social factors affecting women’s mental health in pregnancy. Our findings identify the adverse employment conditions that negatively influence women’s well-being during pregnancy so that we can work towards optimal outcomes for women both before and after the birth.

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About the Authors

Amanda Cooklin is currently completing her PhD research investigating the determinants and mental health outcomes of primiparous mothers’ employment participation in the first postnatal year. Amanda holds a Master of Women’s Health from the University of Melbourne, and has been employed at the Key Centre for Women’s Health in Society for a number of years on projects related to perinatal and reproductive mental health, breastfeeding and maternal employment.
Please note: This study was funded by both NHMRC and VicHealth.

Dr Heather Rowe is a lecturer at the Key Centre for Women’s Health in Society, University of Melbourne. She is a health scientist with a background in genetics, psychology and health promotion. She has a program of research in reproductive mental health, including understanding women’s experiences of unplanned pregnancy, genetic screening in pregnancy, early parenting health service evaluation and mental health promotion for new parents.

Associate Professor Jane Fisher is the coordinator of postgraduate education and training at the Key Centre for Women’s Health in Society, University of Melbourne, and a clinical psychologist. A/Prof Fisher's broad research interest is in the links between reproductive health and mental health, including the psychological impact of fertility difficulties and assisted reproductive technologies, pregnancy loss, operative interventions in childbirth and postpartum maternal adjustment and early parenting difficulties.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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