By Daniel Hunter

More than 50,000 women could be forced out of their jobs every year as a result of pregnancy and maternity discrimination, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The survey of 3,200 women found that 11% of female employees believe they were dismissed, made redundant where others in their workplace were not, or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their jobs, because they were pregnant or were on maternity leave.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission said that if replicated across the population as a whole, this could mean as many as 54,000 women losing their jobs each year.

The research, carried out in partnership with the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, also found around 1 in 5 new mothers experienced harassment or negative comments from their colleagues, employer or manager when pregnant or returning from maternity leave.

The survey is the largest of its kind, with a total of more than 6,000 mothers and employers across Great Britain taking part in interviews about their experiences and practices.

The research also shows that many employers, across a range of industries, say they are firm supporters of female staff during and after their pregnancies and find it easy to comply with the law.

Nearly nine in 10 (84%) of employers believe that supporting pregnant workers and those on maternity leave is in the interests of their organisations.

Around 8 out of 10 employers agree that pregnant women and those returning from maternity leave are just as committed to their work as their colleagues.

Two thirds of employers don’t think that pregnancy puts an unreasonable cost burden on the workplace. Firms that have recent experience of employing pregnant women are more positive.

Two thirds of mothers (66%) felt their employer supported them willingly during pregnancy and when they returned to work.

However, the research suggests that for some women pregnancy and maternity at work is not a positive experience;

Ten per cent are discouraged by their employer from attending antenatal appointments. Nine per cent said that they were treated worse by their employer on their return to work than they were before pregnancy.

More than one in 20 (7%) said they were put under pressure to hand in their notice. When mothers were allowed to work flexibly, around half reported negative consequences such as receiving fewer opportunities at work or feeling that their opinion was less valued; and

The impact on younger mothers -those under 25 years old - is greater in many areas, with around 6% experiencing dismissal compared with 1% across all age groups.

Caroline Waters, Deputy Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “This research reveals the worrying levels of discrimination and disadvantage at work that women still face today. Not only is discrimination unlawful, but it is also bad for business.

“That’s why today we’re launching a major initiative to bring this issue into the public eye, improve awareness of the law and work with business and other groups to find workable solutions.”

Dianah Worman, diversity adviser for the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, said: “The findings of this important research show how employers are losing female talent by default. It’s a wake-up call about checking against weak employment practices that cause such negative experiences for mums who want to work.

“It's time for employers to do some housekeeping in their organisations to make sure hidden problems and difficulties are surfaced and dealt with quickly to ensure they have both diverse and inclusive working environments.

“This will allow them to benefit from the added value women can contribute. At a time when the war for talent is hotting up, action is essential. It’s nonsense for talent to be wasted and discrimination in pregnancy and maternity, whether intended or not, is an urgent area to be addressed.”

Publication of this research marks the launch of the Commission’s #worksforme awareness initiative to reduce pregnancy and maternity discrimination. The Commission is providing practical advice and information for women and employers on their rights and responsibilities, as well as a practical toolkit with a step by step guide for employers on managing pregnancy and maternity.

The #worksforme resources will help employers to understand what they must do when an employee is pregnant, on maternity leave or returning to work, and how to ensure they are creating an environment that works for everyone.