Probe looks at mothers in workplace
The treatment of pregnant woman and mothers in workplaces across Northern Ireland is to be formally investigated by an equality watchdog.
The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland will assess the extent to which having a child creates employment barriers in the region.
Chief commissioner Dr Michael Wardlow said the most common cause of complaint to the commission on grounds of gender is from women who feel they have been treated unfairly either when they became pregnant or on their return to work after maternity leave.
"The investigation will consider the employment experiences of pregnant women and mothers returning to work and identify any barriers to equal treatment," he said.
"It will also report on examples of good practice by employers which provide pregnant women and mothers with equality of opportunity in the workplace."
Announcing the investigation under the Sex Discrimination Order (NI) 1976, the ECNI highlighted the recent case of 24-year-old Belfast woman Sinead Morgan, a former manager with clothing retailer River Island.
After maternity leave Ms Morgan, who had been a member of staff for five years, wished to return to work in a part-time capacity - but was told she could only return on a part-time basis to a post two grades below her previous managerial position.
Last year, the commission assisted her in lodging a complaint with the Industrial Tribunal alleging unlawful sex discrimination.
The case was settled before hearing and River Island, without admission of liability, paid her the sum of £4,500 and undertook to review its practices in relation to the facilitation of managers who wish to work part-time by reason of family commitments or caring responsibilities.
Ms Morgan said: "I was really hurt when I was informed that I couldn't return to my own post.
"I enjoyed my job and took pride in my work, and was very disappointed when I was not allowed to return to my management role on a part-time basis after my maternity leave. As I had childcare responsibilities and could not work full-time, I felt I had no option but to resign."
Commenting on the new investigation, Dr Wardlow said it was important that all employers were aware of the laws governing pregnancy and maternity rights in the workplace.
"We do extensive work providing advice and guidance on these issues and find that most employers want to know what the law requires and want to make sure they are providing fair treatment and equality of opportunity for all their workers," he said.
"This investigation will provide us with a wider perspective and a greater depth of knowledge of the issues facing women in the Northern Ireland workplace today.
"How we accommodate and support the needs of pregnant women and mothers in the workplace is a crucial test of our willingness as a society to enable women - who make up almost 50% of the workforce - to participate in it fully and without disadvantage."
The Commission has nominated two of its commissioners - Lyn McBriar and Anna Carragher - to head up the investigation.
It is anticipated that the exercise will proceed throughout this year and that a full report will be published in 2016.