When Joeli Brearley found out she was pregnant with her first child, she didn’t give work much of a second thought. At the time she was employed as a project manager on a fixed term contract, her relationship with her main client had always been good and when the time came for her to go on maternity leave she had a replacement waiting in the wings. Except it never came to that.
When she was four months pregnant, Joeli was let go. There was no explanation, just a brief voicemail, but she was left in no doubt that her impending motherhood was the cause.
“It was a bolt from the blue,” she says. “Everything had been going really well, but when I told them I was pregnant it was like overnight everything changed. When I was let go, I started looking round for organisations who might be able to give me some advice about what to do next, but I couldn’t find any so in the end I contacted an employment lawyer. They sent off a letter, which cost me £300, but they didn’t get any response.
“My only real option was to go to a tribunal, but I had been told that my pregnancy was high risk. I knew that pursuing a legal route would be stressful and I didn’t want to do anything which would jeopardise the health of my baby.”
Instead Joeli nursed her wounds and decided that she had just been unlucky. However, later when she began attending a playgroup session with other young mums she realised that what she had thought was a one-off experience was in fact shared by many others.
“I was shocked, I had no idea that such discrimination was so common,” she says. “The problem is that women can’t or don’t feel able to talk about it. If they go to a tribunal there is more often than not a gagging clause in any settlement and for those that do just walk away there is a real fear that if anyone else finds out they’ll be branded a troublemaker and struggle to get back into the workplace ever again.”
The issue was raised this week by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee following a report which showed that the number of expectant or new mums forced to leave their job because of concerns about the safety of their child or pregnancy discrimination has doubled in the last 10 years to 54,000. A further one in 10 reported being dismissed, singled out for compulsory redundancy or said they had been forced out of their job due to poor treatment.
In order to give the victims of discrimination a voice, last year Joeli launched a website aptly called Pregnant Then Screwed, which as well as providing legal advice also provides a platform for women to share their experiences anonymously.
“There have been some real horror stories,” says Joeli. “There was one woman who had been guaranteed a promotion and was told the interview was just a formality. However, when she told her boss she was pregnant, the promotion vanished and when she was asked why she was told ‘because her priorities had clearly changed’.”
There is also the woman suffering from severe morning sickness who was told that she couldn’t keep disappearing to the toilet, but would have to vomit into a bin by her desk. Worse of all is the tale of the woman who went into premature labour following weeks of bullying and who found out she had been sacked while her baby was in intensive care.
Every story has another side, but the sheer weight of women now coming forward suggests that this isn’t an issue confined to just a few bad employers.
“It all comes down to outdated gender stereotypes, but I think people would be surprised to discover just how widespread it is,” says Joeli, who now has two children, aged three and eight months. “However, it doesn’t have to be that way. When I was six months pregnant with my first child I found work with another company who couldn’t have been more supportive. They have been incredibly loyal to me and as a result I have been incredibly loyal to them.”
The Women and Equalities Committee has now recommended the introduction of a German style system which would ban employers from making women redundant during and immediately after pregnancy except in exceptional circumstances as well as a substantial cut to the £1,200 fee needed to secure a tribunal.
Oliver Black, director of My Family Care which works with companies both in the UK and internationally to find family friendly solutions for human resource issues says: “There is already nervousness within some industry’s about the redundancy of someone who is pregnant – certainly within areas like the financial services sector, people tend to tread very carefully. However, what is true is that if we want to narrow the gender pay gap, create a more gender diverse workforce and achieve the goals of women on boards etc – we have to make sure our talent pools are full of the best people. Making sure that the simple fact of having a baby isn’t career ending has to be a step in the right direction.”
The committee acknowledged that previous attempts to address discrimination have lacked urgency, but Joeli is less optimistic this latest report will have any more bite.
“I honestly think that it’s little more than a sticking plaster,” she says. “What we need are policies which address the underlying issues and which stops this type of discrimination in its tracks. That’s easier said than done because it requires a cultural shift in the labour market. However, there are practical steps which could might just get that process started.”
The Pregnant Then Screwed campaign is calling for the introduction of subsidised childcare from the age of three months, not three years, an increase in paid paternity leave and more opportunities for well-paid part-time and flexible working.
“We can’t expect equality in the workplace until we have it in the home and an overhaul of paternity leave would at least be a start,” says Joeli. “Also, if we are serious about encouraging women back into work then we need to look again at childcare which is prohibitively expensive.
“In this country we also seem to have an aversion to the idea of flexible working, which is crazy because countries like Sweden have shown that companies which embrace it are actually more productive.
“I have spoken to women who I have become friends with through the website who have gone through the tribunal process and it’s heartbreaking. Often in these cases, there is nothing written down, so it ends up being the word of one person against the other. By the time they step into the tribunal room these women already feel like a shell of their former self and if they lose then it further crushes their confidence. We now need to stop these situations from every arising in the first place.”
For more details go to pregnantthenscrewed.com