Central London Employment Tribunal has ordered YOO Limited to pay £250,000 in damages to an employee after ruling that she was unfairly constructively dismissed and subjected to detrimental treatment because of pregnancy or maternity.
Julie Humphryes claimed that she was forced out of her job at the company because of sexist bullying. She alleged that she was marginalised after taking maternity leave in July 2012. Ms Humphryes said that she was also subjected to sexist remarks prior to her maternity leave, such as being asked in a meeting whether she really wanted to be a “supermum”.
Ms Humphryes, a leading architect and designer, helped to design a luxury residential development which featured in Homes and Gardens Magazine but her male colleague received all the credit for it while she was on maternity leave. After she complained about this lack of recognition of her work, the company’s CEO, Chris Boulton, commented that she was exhibiting “maternity paranoia”. Ms Humphryes resigned after this claiming that it was the “last straw”. In explaining his comment to the tribunal, Mr Boulton said that she was, “exhibiting insecurity because she was away from the office and not in touch with what was going on”.
Ms Humphryes claimed that she had also been subjected to unlawful discrimination by John Hitchcox, who was a joint founder of the company together with renowned designer, Philippe Starck, after he used the phrase, “supermum”. Mr Hitchcox had also commented on the extensive travelling involved in the job and the fact that Ms Humphryes had taken her first child with her on foreign business trips.
The tribunal found that although Mr Hitchcox had the best of motives the remark was reasonably viewed as a detriment and amounted to unfavourable treatment because of pregnancy or maternity. This amounted to detrimental treatment under the Equality Act. The tribunal said that they accepted from Mr Boulton that his general point was that being out of the office might be making her over suspicious about what may be going on at work without her knowledge. “Nevertheless the specific phrase, “maternity paranoia” has the pejorative tone expressly linked to maternity being the reason for absence” The tribunal therefore found this was unfavourable treatment.
The tribunal also found that Ms Humphryes had a legitimate expectation that she should not have been left out of the Homes and Gardens article simply because she was on maternity leave. Mr Boulton had also told Ms Humphryes to “calm down” which the tribunal ruled “had the whiff of the patronising” about it and that his demeanour towards her was “laced with an element of sexism”.
Ms Humphryes was awarded £20,000 for injury to feelings, £72,500 for loss of earnings for not being employed and £176,500 for other losses before deductions. The tribunal also ruled that Ms Humphryes had contributed to her own dismissal and reduced her award by 10% to reflect this.
The decision highlights the type of remarks that a tribunal will consider amount to detrimental treatment for the purposes of sex, maternity and pregnancy discrimination and also that overlooking someone on maternity leave simply because they are off is likely to be discriminatory.
Under the Equality Act 2010 pregnancy and maternity discrimination occur where an employer
- treats a female job applicant or employee unfavourably during the protected period because of her pregnancy or because of an illness suffered by her as a result of her pregnancy; or
treats a female employee unfavourably because she is on compulsory maternity leave or because she is exercising or has exercised or has sought to exercise the right to ordinary or additional maternity leave.
In determining whether a female employee has been discriminated against because of pregnancy or maternity within the meaning of the Equality Act, the test is whether she has been treated unfavourably, rather than less favourably. There is no need for a comparator.
It is important to note that a woman’s pregnancy or maternity does not have to be the only or even the main reason for her unfavourable treatment. A woman’s pregnancy or maternity leave only needs to materially influence the employer’s conscious or sub-conscious decision making to be discriminatory. Even though an employer may have sound motives for making a remark it may nevertheless be held to amount to detrimental and unfavourable treatment.
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