Discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace is something which most people might assume belongs firmly in the past, a relic of a bygone, politically incorrect era with no bearing on modern life. Yet it’s estimated that 54,000 women are forced out of their jobs due to pregnancy every year.
Joeli Brearley, from Manchester, found herself in precisely these circumstances whilst working as a self-employed project manager. When she told her main client that she was four months pregnant, she was promptly sacked. Joeli explains to The Independent: “I was sacked by my main client when I was four months pregnant, almost immediately after I told them and just weeks after I’d secured a huge round of funding for them. I didn’t pursue legal action at the time as my pregnancy was deemed high-risk and I would have risked the health of my baby had I embarked on a highly stressful legal process.”
Although shocked by her own experiences, she soon realised that her situation was far from unique: “Once I had the baby and I started speaking to other mums about what happened, I realised that my situation was not unusual, the majority of mothers I spoke to had endured some level of discrimination from the point of pregnancy.”
It was then that Joeli began organising her fight-back. She says: “Shocked by the stories I was hearing and still bitter from my own experiences, I decided something needed to be done.” She founded the online project ‘Pregnant Then Screwed’; a platform which allows women to anonymously submit their own experiences of pregnancy related discrimination in the workplace. The philosophy of the site is not dissimilar to that of the Everyday Sexism project, in recording examples of discrimination from around the UK to piece together women’s experiences and to both understand and record pregnancy discrimination one story at a time.
The testimonies make for uncomfortable reading and shine a light on an issue which is all too often assumed to be non-existent in the modern world. One woman’s story explains how she had a high flying career in telecoms but found she was slowly frozen out by her company from the day she announced her pregnancy. She was no longer invited to meetings or involved in discussions, before finally being moved to smaller and “far less impressive accounts”. She writes: “I couldn’t believe that practically overnight my whole image at work changed… I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself.”
One woman describes how her new born son was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect and profound deafness. She writes: “He was operated on at a hospital 70 miles away and we visited him daily whilst having to maintain a household for other children. It was during one of the drives home that I discovered my job had been given to someone else- not on a maternity or temporary cover but given to someone internally on a permanent basis.”
Another woman describes how she found out whilst on maternity leave that a male colleague was replacing her: “I was told that times had changed, they needed someone more ‘aggressive’ in the role and that I would have trouble travelling. Even though this was my second child and I had regularly travelled for the organisation.”
Joeli says that Pregnant Then Screwed has recorded more than 500 stories across its UK and US sites: “We contact each and every person who writes to us individually to thank them for their story, offer them advice or just an empathetic shoulder to cry on.”
At the core of the project is the importance of speaking out instead of suffering in silence: “A major challenge is that women who are victims of discrimination don’t want to talk about it publicly. They are scared they will be branded a trouble-maker and that speaking out will turn potential future employers off. I know when it happened to me, I felt like I was the only woman in the world it had ever happened to.”
As well as speaking out and raising awareness, Joeli says a key issue to address is how employment tribunal costs represent a barrier for women seeking to take an employer to court.
Another issue is that the window opportunity to take a claim is currently at 3 months. Joeli explains: “To extend this to six months would be in line with other categories such as workers’ pensions rights. For most women, pregnancy or the first few months of motherhood is the most physically and mentally draining time of your life and the additional stress of taking on legal action is often too much to comprehend. Therefore many women are put off trying to seek justice by the prospect of months of exhausting tribunal processes.”
Lastly, she says: “we believe that increased paternity leave paid at a rate comparable to the father’s salary would have the most significant effect on the gender pay gap and reducing discrimination in the workplace.”
For any woman who might find herself in such difficult circumstances, Joeli has this advice: “Try talking to your employer and explain how you feel. It may be that you can solve the problem through open communication. Many employers don’t behave badly out of malice but out of fear and ignorance. If that is ineffective, seek legal advice.
“Don’t be afraid to lean on partners, friends and family for support- it’s your extended network that will see you through the rough patches.”
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies