About 20 percent of working women have experienced illegal “maternity harassment,” or discrimination against pregnant women and mothers in the workplace, a survey by the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) has revealed.

The online survey of 1,000 women nationwide aged between 20 and 49 who became pregnant while employed showed Monday that 20.9 percent experienced unfavorable treatment or even outright harassment.

Of the total, 9.8 percent said they were verbally harassed, 7.8 percent reported being fired or not having their contract renewed. A further 3.3 percent said they were demoted or that their assignments were changed against their will.

“The figures show there is a huge gap between the law and reality,” said Yumiko Akutsu, a lawyer familiar with maternity harassment issues.

Akutsu said some companies are likely contravening the Equal Employment Opportunity Act for Men and Women, which prohibits the “unfavorable treatment” of pregnant women and those involved in child rearing.

Akutsu said the survey revealed many women are compelled to accept the situation, and said many would be warranted in lodging lawsuits.

She said the sole suit to date was the one that reached the Supreme Court last year. In October, it overturned a lower court’s dismissal of a physiotherapist’s claim that she was unjustly demoted on account of her pregnancy. It was the first-ever ruling by the nation’s top court on a maternity harassment case.

The survey of working pregnant women by Japan’s largest labor organization also found that 61.2 percent of women quit their jobs after becoming pregnant.

Of those who quit, 16.8 percent said they did so because they felt they feared experiencing anxiety in the workplace even though they wanted to continue working.

Another 7.2 percent reported unfavorable treatment, including being asked to resign or go part-time. Again, this was despite the women’s wish to continue working.

Akutsu is urging firms to overturn the deep-seated mentality of traditional gender roles, not least because Japan today needs more women to work as birth rates fall and the population ages.

She also urged the government to enforce strict monitoring of how companies comply with the law.

Furthermore, the online poll showed 34.3 percent of women who reported their pregnancy to their company hesitated before doing so. About 45 percent of them said they worried that it would inconvenience their colleagues, while 41.9 percent cited the prevailing atmosphere in the workplace as the reason.

Akutsu said workers should learn to understand motherhood so that working pregnant women find it a subject that is easier to discuss openly.

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