20 Apr 23

As momentum in women’s sport continues to build, there is an increasing expectation on governing bodies, teams and clubs to provide better protection and benefits for female athletes. In particular, pressure is growing on organisations across sport to offer more support to athletes during and after pregnancy.

In February this year, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) announced that it was introducing a new enhanced maternity, pregnant parent and adoption leave policy for players contracted to the England Women’s team. Under its new policy, players will receive full pay for the first 26 weeks of maternity leave and will also benefit from additional financial support to cover the travel and accommodation costs involved in having their child (and any childcare support) attend competitions or training camps with them.

The RFU’s announcement follows similar announcements from other governing bodies, including the Football Association and UK Sport.

Whilst an increasing number of sports organisations are starting to look more closely at their maternity and family policies, it is not a straightforward exercise. The most appropriate protections and benefits will always depend on the nature of the specific sport, including the physical demands, competition structure or whether athletes compete as part of a team. For example, in individual sports where an athlete’s career can be shaped by ranking places, governing bodies will need to consider the extent to which those rankings will be protected during any maternity-related absence.

Whilst there is no “one size fits all” approach to maternity policies in sport, the following factors are likely to be important for most governing bodies, teams and clubs:

  • The level of pay or financial support for athletes during any maternity-related absence.
  • The health and safety issues for athletes during and after pregnancy and what measures can be taken to protect them. For example, if the nature of the specific sport means an athlete cannot safely compete whilst pregnant, there may be other roles they can perform within a team or squad environment.
  • The extent to which an athlete’s sporting career and progress can be protected during any maternity-related absence. Depending on the specific sport, relevant measures could include the protection of rankings, relaxed qualification criteria for tournaments, reserved squad places or automatic extension of playing contracts.
  • Childcare support during training camps, tournaments or competitions.
  • The extent to which athletes will continue to benefit from any sponsorship or endorsement deals during maternity-related absence.
  • Support with reproductive health issues associated with athletes (e.g. relative energy deficiency).

We advise clients across the sports industry on a range of employment law and HR matters, including maternity and family policies. If you have any questions or would like any support, please contact us.

Alex Clarke

Senior Associate