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Law enforcement and dispute resolution following pregnancy and maternity discrimination at work in the UK: experiences of pregnant workers and new mothers

School of Law

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Prof G James Applications accepted all year round Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

It is estimated that 77% of working mothers in the UK have a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy, maternity or when returning to work and that annually as many as 54,000 mothers feel forced to leave their jobs as a result of such behaviour (EHRC/BIS, 2016). Pregnancy and maternity related discrimination is not a new phenomenon but more women are now being made redundant or feeling forced to leave their jobs than was the case a decade ago (EOC, 2005). Moreover, it is increasing despite the fact that policy makers have, for many years, espoused a commitment to promoting work / family reconciliation (see e.g. Lewis and Campbell 2007) and offered fairly solid formal legal protection to those who are subjected to this type of discrimination (James 2007 and 2009). Of particular relevance to this PhD project, the 2016 EHRC/BIS investigation shows that very few - 28% of those who experience discrimination or disadvantage of this type - discuss the issue with their employer and only 3% ever make a formal complaint (EHRC/BIS, 2016 – experiences of mothers p145). A 2016 inquiry conducted by the Women and Equalities Committee (W&Eq Com) discussed this ‘enforcement gap’, noting how the burden always rests with the individual complainants and concluded that the Government has a ‘clear responsibility to ensure that pregnancy and maternity discrimination laws are better enforced’ (W&Eq Com 2016, p44). Yet, in its responses to these investigations, the Government has rejected calls for legal reform (in particular, calls to extend the time limit for bringing legal action in these cases) stating that there is ‘no evidence’ to suggest that there is such a need (Government response to EHRC p12). This PhD project will explore in detail what motivates and/or restricts the behaviour of this particularly vulnerable cohort of workers following workplace disputes of this nature and what can be done to help enforce the law. The research will also add to our understanding of the process by which conflicts in general are transformed into legal disputes (e.g. Felstiner, 1980-81), issues of access to justice and why people ‘go to law’ (e.g. Genn 1999) and develop our understanding of the gendered nature of employment law and the impact of such processes/laws on issues of gender equality (James 2009), identity and wellbeing (e.g. see Clisby and Holdsworth 2016).

Funding Notes

The successful applicant would be expected to hold a Masters degree (or equivalent) in a socio-legal discipline at least at Merit level.

Students need to be self-funded, although the University does offer some regional bursaries.
More information can be found here:

Support is available for the candidate to apply for UKRC funding:


Clisby, S and Holdsworth, J (2016) Gendering Women: Idenitity and Mental Wellbeing Through the Lifecourse, Policy Press, Bristol.
EHRC/BIS (2016) Pregnancy and Maternity Related Discrimination and Disadvantage EHRC, London.
EOC (2005) Greater Expectations, EOC, Manchester.
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