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Pregnancy and maternity discrimination

Updating author: Tina McKevitt


  • The law relating to pregnancy and maternity discrimination is governed by the Equality Act 2010. The core provisions of the Act, which repealed the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, came into force on 1 October 2010. While the Equality Act 2010 largely consolidated previous discrimination legislation, it also designated pregnancy and maternity as a protected characteristic in its own right and removed the requirement for a comparator to establish victimisation. It is assumed that many of the principles that were established in the extensive body of case law that was decided under previous discrimination legislation will remain relevant in interpreting the provisions of the Equality Act 2010. For this reason such cases have been included in the body of this section together with an indication of the legislation under which they were decided.
  • Pregnancy and maternity is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. Discrimination covers the unfavourable treatment of a woman, during the "protected period" in relation to her pregnancy or illness suffered by her as a result of that pregnancy. Unfavourable treatment during the protected period because a woman is on compulsory maternity leave or she is exercising or seeking to exercise, or has exercised or sought to exercise, the right to ordinary or additional maternity leave, is also covered. (See Definition of pregnancy and maternity)
  • The definition of "employee" for the purposes of protection against pregnancy and maternity discrimination is wider than that contained in other employment legislation. (See Who is protected?)
  • As well as being liable for its own actions, there are circumstances in which an employer will be liable for the acts of others. Under the wider provisions of the legislation, others who are not employers may find themselves liable. (See Who is liable?)
  • Section 18 of the Equality Act 2010 prohibits direct discrimination relating to the protected characteristic of pregnancy and maternity. Discrimination under s.18 does not include discrimination by association or discrimination by perception. (See Prohibited conduct)
  • It is unlawful to discriminate in the context of employment or vocational training including, in particular circumstances, after the working relationship has ended where the prohibited conduct arises out of and is closely connected to that relationship. (See Prohibited conduct in the employment context)
  • Direct discrimination is unfavourable treatment related to the protected characteristic of pregnancy and maternity. (See Direct discrimination)
  • Under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, an employer may be vicariously liable for a course of conduct by one of its employees that amounts to harassment under the Act. (See Protection from Harassment Act 1997)
  • Victimisation is where person A subjects person B to a detriment because B has done, or A believes that B has done, or may do a "protected act". (See Victimisation)
  • Exceptions from unlawful discrimination exist in relation to non-contractual payments to woman on maternity leave and in relation to various other matters including acts done for the purpose of safeguarding national security and insurance contracts. (See Exceptions)
  • Terms that constitute, promote or provide for treatment that is prohibited under the Equality Act 2010 are unenforceable. It is not possible to contract out of the Act's provisions except by way of a conciliated settlement or a valid compromise contract. (See Terms)
  • Employers may, in certain circumstances, take measures to enable or encourage people who share a particular protected characteristic to overcome a disadvantage that the employer reasonably thinks is suffered by people with the same protected characteristic. Employers may also, in defined circumstances, appoint or promote a person with a protected characteristic in preference to another person who does not have the protected characteristic. (See Positive action)
  • With effect from 1 October 2010, all occupational pension schemes must be read as including a non-discrimination clause. (See Pensions and other employment benefits)
  • Public authorities have a general duty to eliminate discrimination, harassment and victimisation; advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a protected characteristic and those who do not; and foster good relations between persons who share a protected characteristic and those who do not. (See Public authorities)
  • Prior to the implementation of the Equality Act 2010, pregnancy and maternity discrimination was dealt with under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. (See Pregnancy and maternity discrimination prior to the implementation of the Equality Act 2010)

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