The Supreme Court’s first-ever ruling last week on so-called maternity harassment is significant in that it affirms that female workers cannot be unfairly treated in the workplace on account of pregnancy. The ruling sets out criteria for construing the treatment of such women as a violation of the law.

The case also sheds light on the fact that nearly three decades since the law on equal employment opportunities for both genders was enacted, the nation still appears to lack an effective system to prevent women from being forced to abandon career paths once they become pregnant and give birth.

A physical therapist at a hospital in Hiroshima requested that she be moved to a less-demanding work when she became pregnant in 2008, but was subsequently relieved of her managerial position. She sued the hospital for ¥1.7 million in damages, saying it violated the equal employment opportunities law when it demoted her on account of her pregnancy.

Lower courts dismissed her suit, ruling that she was demoted on the basis of her request for a reduced workload and that appointing hospital workers to senior positions is the prerogative of the hospital’s management.

In its ruling last Thursday, the Supreme Court said that female workers, in principle, cannot be demoted on account of their pregnancies, noting that personnel decisions authorizing such demotions are illegal and invalid unless either the women consent to the demotion on their own will or there are special circumstances that necessitate such transfers to ensure smooth work operation.

The top court dismissed the hospital’s claim that the physical therapist consented to the demotion, and sent the case back to the Hiroshima High Court to re-examine whether the hospital had special reasons that required it to deprive her of the managerial position.

Business managers and executives should reflect on the Supreme Court ruling in light of what’s happening in their own companies. The Abe administration has set an agenda of promoting women at work and is preparing a law requiring large companies to set targets for increasing the number of women in senior positions. But what’s needed along with these plans are efforts to eliminate practices that effectively force many women to quit their jobs halfway through their career.

Harassment of women in workplaces when they become pregnant or give birth is said to come in various forms. Some reportedly face termination of employment, demotion or outright pressures from superiors to quit voluntarily.

Others become subject to more subtle forms such as snide comments from other workers who complain about having to work extra when their colleagues take maternity leave.

On the other hand, according to a survey by the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), there are employees who say they were told to work extra hours or engage in more physically demanding jobs after they informed their employers that they had become pregnant.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry says it received more than 2,000 inquiries about maltreatment by employers on account of pregnancy and childbirth in fiscal 2013 alone, in addition to consultations from nearly 1,300 workers about health management during pregnancy and after childbirth.

Many more women are believed to be silently enduring the maltreatment, preoccupied with raising their small children and having no one to turn to for help.

Employers are urged to revisit the principles of the equal employment opportunities law — which prohibits maltreatment of workers on account of pregnancy or childbirth — and to take steps to eliminate such practices, either overt or covert, in their workplaces.

One such step should involve companies employing enough staff to cover for female workers who either take maternity and childcare leave or work fewer hours so that their coworkers do not become resentful for having extra work forced on them.

Without such efforts, the government’s goal of promoting more women to responsible positions in society will be difficult to attain.

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