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Tackling Taboos: A new approach to miscarriage leave in the UK

Romanie Thomas, Founder and CEO - Juggle Jobs

Ancient beliefs from culture and religion have undoubtedly shaped modern society, and this especially holds true when we examine universal and pervasive attitudes towards women. 

The taboo of miscarriage has long standing roots – particularly from Ancient Egypt and India – where spells and demons were identified to be responsible. This shifted to blaming the woman herself, most notably during the Tudor era when Queen Anne, Henry VIII’s second wife, suffered a miscarriage during her second trimester – and we all know the result from that situation. Although attitudes have shifted to sympathise with the mother-to-be, we cannot ignore centuries of deep-seated attitudes which blame women for what is ultimately an extremely natural, albeit tragic, event in our lives as humans. Yet, are we well placed to break down these ancient beliefs and move forward?

The (im)balance of power

Only 5% of company CEOs in the FTSE 100 are women and suffering a miscarriage is uniquely a female experience. It can thus be difficult to make progress without the c-suite roundtable gaining more balance because we are relying on men to break down these barriers for women.

Whilst excellent work policies can happen in the background, there is little impact given the lack of women in the senior roles to really implement the changes required, thanks to the lack of representation as well as prioritisation in getting this issue to the top of the agenda. Do men in a position of authority even feel like discussing or advocating for miscarriage leave?

That said, male CEOs are playing a significant role in important issues such as Lloyds’ CEO Antonio Horta-Osaria’s experience of poor mental health, breaking through that particular barrier in the tough world of financial services. However, there are so many competing issues for their attention that it’s difficult for the topic of miscarriage to cut through, particularly when women remain largely silent about their tragedy. 

The sense of silent suffering

Women remain silent about miscarriages because it’s sensible to do so. Women who have given subtle indications that they are parents (or about to be) are less likely to secure a role and are paid less. 

Speaking up about a miscarriage is a loud and clear signal that they’re trying for a baby, which consequently means they’re seen as a cost rather than an asset. This “parent-bias” phenomenon is hurting companies as women are brought into the workforce and then lost along the way [Women in the Workplace 2020]. But advancing women’s participation in the workforce could benefit the world economy by $12 trillion, a much needed solution in light of the pandemic. Yet, we have witnessed a ‘she-cession’ during this global crisis thanks to the phenomena that women are the primary caregivers and thus twice as likely to suffer job losses than men. For example, one study found that in the UK mothers of primary school-aged children spent an average of five hours a day on home-schooling, while fathers spent two hours.

Beyond the stats and parent-bias, miscarrying a child is truly devastating to most women – friends of mine have been overwhelmed by grief and mourn this passing of life as they would any other (if not more). 

Therefore, why is it that there isn’t a more open forum of discussion, dedicated support and up to 5 days of bereavement leave when a loved one passes away? Why do most women feel that they cannot speak up when they miscarry? It seems that nothing works in the female advantage when it comes to the business issue of miscarriage. 

Miscarriage is a business issue

One in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, one in 250 are still born, and one in six women will go on to have long-term post traumatic stress around these events. 

In the UK today, there are 20 million working people with children. Therefore, it is time to acknowledge the truth that businesses need the new generation to prosper, and women are biologically the ones to give birth to them. We need to look after these women sufficiently to work and succeed whilst doing so, including a deeper and more extensive support network when they suffer something as traumatic as a miscarriage. Leaders and managers need to remind themselves that we are all human and dedicate time and effort into being as approachable as possible.

With Channel 4 and Monzo both announcing new policies this year offering male and female staff PTO (paid time off) for pregnancy loss and fertility treatments, British businesses can foster a more compassionate and empathetic company culture in which parents, particularly women, can openly speak about their personal lives without fear of demotion, being let go, judged or simply not being heard. 

The UK can then finally bypass the bias, and move ahead of the times, ultimately benefiting from the loyalty, experience, and skill of these fantastic workers.

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