Elly Sugianto

Sent home … Elly Sugianto with her 8-month-old daughter Zara. Elly was dismissed by her employer, Commonwealth Bank, after returning from maternity leave. Photo: Wolter Peeters

''Women and men might be treated the same at work, but when things really change is when women want to go off and have a child. They will take maternity leave and all of a sudden they are treated differently, as if they don't have the same aspirations or ambitions any more.''

Those words were spoken by the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, in 1995.

'Women and men might be treated the same at work, but when things really change is when women want to go off and have a child. They will take maternity leave and all of a sudden they are treated differently, as if they don't have the same aspirations or ambitions any more.' 

Speaking as the former Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Ms Bryce said many employers still harboured deep misgivings about maternity leave. Maternity leave, she concluded, continued to be viewed differently to other forms of leave in the workplace.

Ms Bryce's observations were made in response to a class action launched by 2400 female employees across Australia against the Commonwealth Bank, over allegations of denied promotions and access to generous retrenchment programs because they were on maternity leave.

The women won their case in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission but the decision was subsequently overturned by the Federal Court in 1997.

Earlier this year, Australia became one of the few remaining developed nations to introduce a paid parental leave scheme, further enshrining in law a woman's right to take time out of work to give birth without having to sacrifice her career. But when it comes to indirect discrimination involving maternity leave, it is not clear how much has really changed since that failed landmark class action against the Commonwealth Bank 14 years ago.

Not a lot, Giri Sivaraman, a principal in employment and industrial law with the legal firm Maurice Blackburn might argue, as he prepares another case against the bank alleging discrimination against an employee over the issue of maternity leave. It is the fifth such case against the bank the firm has handled in as many years.

''It's astounding that one of the big four banks has ignored the law completely,'' he says.

His client, Elly Sugianto, a former finance manager with the Commonwealth Bank, is preparing to launch action against her employer at Fair Work Australia.

Ms Sugianto alleges she was discriminated against after returning to work from maternity leave and being told she was no longer required.

''What made me very angry was they told me to stay at home from now on,'' she says. ''They said 'we're happy for you to catch a cab and go home. It's best you stay at home'.''

Ms Sugianto is expected to seek a six figure compensation package, arguing that the Commonwealth Bank failed to guarantee her position when she went on maternity leave and failed to consult her on plans to make changes to her position. Under the Fair Work Act, an employer must comply with both these requirements by law.

In a prepared statement, the bank declined to directly respond to Ms Sugianto's allegations.

A copy of the bank's parental leave policy was forwarded to the Herald but a spokesman declined to say how many of its employees have launched legal action on the grounds of pregnancy and parental leave discrimination.