Maternity discrimination: is “hygge” the answer?
On 25 January 2019, the Government launched a consultation to look into ways to boost legal protections for pregnant women and new mothers. This is needed, as research commissioned by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) found that 1 in 9 women said they had been fired or made redundant when they returned to work after having a child, or were treated so badly they felt forced out of their job.
So, what is the solution? One of the proposals being considered is to extend existing provisions which provide women with extra protection against being made redundant while pregnant or on maternity leave. Currently, the Government is considering extending it to a period of 6 months following their return from maternity leave.
While I think the proposal is a good one (although I would extend protection up to 12 months), I think a more radical approach is required. This is particularly so, given that even if women have greater legal protections – discrimination claims are complex and without legal aid or other funding, many cannot afford to enforce their existing employment rights.
I have recently finished reading the “Little Book of Hygge” by Meik Wiking, and feel that this Danish way of life may unlock the answer to addressing the cultural issues surrounding maternity discrimination. “Hygge” (pronounced hoo-gah) is a word that does not translate well into English. The closest translation is “cosiness”, but hygge is much more than that for the Danish; it is a way of life. It encompasses concepts such as equality, gratitude, togetherness, trust and harmony.
So how could this tackle maternity discrimination? The culture of trust, inclusion and balance that hyyge encourages impacts every aspect of life in Denmark. For instance, Mr Wiking states that most employees leave work by no later than 5pm, given that hyyge emphasises the importance of family life. In addition, childcare in Denmark is generously subsidised. These factors clearly assist Danish women with balancing careers with having children, so much so that Denmark is considered the best place in the world for women to live.
Having regard to the spirit of hyyge, I would recommend that the Government also consider the following as a part of its consultation:
- Long hours culture: We work much longer hours here in the UK than in comparison with our European counterparts, yet we lag behind in terms of productivity. Studies also show that long hours coupled with a culture of presenteeism is having a negative impact on workers’ health and general wellbeing. Therefore, perhaps counter-intuitively, we should reconsider the 48-hour weekly limit opt-out and seek to reduce working hours and increase annual leave. Not only could it improve productivity, it would remove a barrier (whether actual or perceived) that women with children cannot be as productive as their peers with no caring commitments. From a productivity point of view, it seems to work in Luxembourg, which is ranked the most productive country in the world, where the average working week is 29 hours!
- Cultural reluctance to flexible working: In my experience, there remains a reluctance by some UK employers to embrace flexible working. To change this, I like the intention behind the current proposal by the Labour party to make the right to request to work flexibly available to all employees without any qualifying length of service so as it make it the norm. However, I also think that the existing Flexible Working Regulations needs more teeth – i.e. requiring employers to objectively justify why they are refusing flexible working requests – to force a sea-change.
- Expensive childcare: the cost of childcare in the UK is prohibitive, particularly for double income households. For instance, the cost of a full-time nursery place in London can be up to £20,000 per annum, if not more. Such a cost will inevitably lead to some women questioning whether they should return to full-time employment, or work at all.
In answer to my question of whether hyyge is the answer to maternity discrimination, on its own I would say no. I am sure there are many Danish women who can attest to this. However, the culture in which it fosters would, in my view, help create an environment in which maternity discrimination is curtailed. Clearly the Danish are on to something as they have such high rates of women returning to work after maternity leave, even if their system is by no means perfect. Primarily, it is my view that, while additional employment rights would be helpful, the conclusions of the consultation will be incomplete if we do not look at the matter far more holistically, and examine the cultural issues in the UK which hinder women returning to work after maternity leave.