‘I have over 10 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence. I’m re­ally good at my job. Then I got preg­nant…’

De­spite ma­ter­nity dis­crim­i­na­tion be­ing il­le­gal, al­most 80% of work­ing moth­ers face neg­a­tive treat­ment – and 54,000 lose their jobs each year. Lucy Tobin re­ports

Grazia (UK) - - Contents -

kate* was work­ing for one of Lon­don’s big­gest in­sur­ers when she told her man­ager she was preg­nant. The news didn’t ex­actly trig­ger an of­fice-wide pop­ping of non-al­co­holic cham­pagne. ‘My boss’s first com­ment was, “God, you could have bor­rowed mine first – par­ent­hood is shit”,’ Kate re­mem­bers.

‘From then on, I was slowly cut out. New busi­ness pitches by­passed me, in­vites to team drinks seemed to get lost in the post. When I asked my boss about flex­i­ble work­ing af­ter ma­ter­nity leave, he told me he never sees his kids be­cause he works so hard, so I’d have to ac­cept the same.’

When Kate’s son was born, no one at work got in touch. ‘ Then my flex­i­ble work­ing re­quest was de­nied – which pretty much forced me out of the com­pany,’ she says. A ca­reerist, with more than a decade of ex­pe­ri­ence at City in­sur­ance firms, Kate, now 32, was left feel­ing des­o­late. ‘I’m re­ally good at what I do, but be­ing a mum seems to be a dirty word.’

Be­lieve the beam­ing pho­tos and di­ver­sity prais­ing lan­guage on the av­er­age em­ployer’s web­site and you’d think ma­ter­nity dis­crim­i­na­tion dis­ap­peared decades ago. Legally, un­der the Equal­ity Act 2010, an em­ployee can­not be treated un­fairly be­cause they are preg­nant, breast­feed­ing or have re­cently given birth. Cor­po­rates and start-ups alike are keen to boast about be­ing pro-moth­ers – and par­ents – in the work­place, with full parental-leave poli­cies, un­con­scious bias train­ing in re­cruit­ment, and ‘re­turn­ships’ that aim to bring women who’ve taken time out to raise chil­dren back into the work­place.

But ma­ter­nity dis­crim­i­na­tion is still per­va­sive. Al­most 80% of work­ing mums in the UK face neg­a­tive or dis­crim­i­na­tory treat­ment, ac­cord­ing to the Equal­ity and Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion (EHRC). A huge 54,000 of UK women lose their jobs each year be­cause they are preg­nant or have chil­dren – and one in nine work­ing moth­ers have ei­ther been dis­missed, made re­dun­dant, or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their job.

‘I had never felt any sign of gen­der inequal­ity at work,’ says Nazneem*, 35, a lawyer. ‘I was, of course, aware of the gen­der pay gap, but as a law grad­u­ate work­ing in City jobs, earn­ing sig­nif­i­cantly more than my civil ser­vant hus­band who’s 10 years my se­nior, I’d al­ways counted my­self as a suc­cess­ful young woman to whom the un­fair­ness of the pay gap didn’t

re­ally ap­ply. Then I got preg­nant.’

Af­ter Nazneem told her man­ager, ev­ery­thing changed. ‘I wasn’t al­lowed to do any client-fac­ing work and was in­stead given me­nial tasks such as in­voices to process all day. Then I was rep­ri­manded for tak­ing too much time out for an­te­na­tal ap­point­ments – even though I had taken an­nual leave.’ She was later put on ‘ex­tended pro­ba­tion’. ‘I’ve al­ways flour­ished at work and re­ceived ex­cel­lent feed­back, but be­ing preg­nant stopped all that. Why are women so ma­ligned just be­cause we have a uterus?’

Nazneem’s right that, in many ways, the gen­der wage gap needs to be re­named the ‘child care penalty’. Men and women are paid al­most the same at en­try level jobs – it’s around preg­nancy that the gen­der pay gap bulges. By the time a woman’s first child is 12, her hourly rate of pay is a third lower than a man’s, ac­cord­ing to the In­sti­tute of Fis­cal Stud­ies.

Hanna* had been work­ing in char­ity fundrais­ing for three years when she found out she was preg­nant. When she told her boss, she was ‘clearly shocked’. A week later, Hanna was called in for an un­ex­pected meet­ing. ‘My boss said she was cut­ting my hours to part-time. I had to blink back tears – my part­ner and I were in the mid­dle of buy­ing a house, and at the time I was earn­ing more than him, so my in­come was re­ally im­por­tant.’

Hanna hired an em­ploy­ment so­lic­i­tor, who told her chang­ing a con­tract with­out agree­ment from a preg­nant em­ployee is clas­si­fied as ma­ter­nity dis­crim­i­na­tion. Her boss sub­se­quently U-turned on the part-time move, but it didn’t help mat­ters day to day. ‘Sud­denly she com­plained about ev­ery­thing I did – in­clud­ing bid­ding let­ters for prospec­tive fund­ing that she’d pre­vi­ously praised. She said she now thought they were ter­ri­ble and told my so­lic­i­tor I was un­der­per­form­ing.’

Hanna had in­tended to take just two weeks’ ma­ter­nity leave: ‘I needed the money.’ But her boss drew up a new con­tract that said she’d have to work in the of­fice full-time. ‘ That was im­pos­si­ble for 

me – I also have two older chil­dren and have to do the school run.’

Hanna even­tu­ally quit and is now tak­ing her boss to an em­ploy­ment tri­bunal. ‘ We’ve had to move back in with my par­ents in or­der to rent out our home to cover the mort­gage pay­ments. I feel like I’ve failed ev­ery­body, as I can’t sup­port my fam­ily. But I refuse to let my boss win.’

Ma­ter­nity dis­crim­i­na­tion cov­ers a wide spec­trum, ac­cord­ing to Joeli Brear­ley, founder of cam­paign group Preg­nant Then Screwed, who was sacked from her job at a chil­dren’s char­ity the day af­ter she’d told her em­ployer she was preg­nant. ‘I ex­pe­ri­enced the ex­treme end of it. But re­dun­dancy is very com­mon. Or em­ploy­ers make it im­pos­si­ble for you to re­turn – they are un­will­ing to be even slightly flex­i­ble with hours, for ex­am­ple, and as child­care usu­ally has very rigid op­er­at­ing hours, it can be un­work­able. Or women are in­formed that they are to be re­lo­cated to a far away of­fice when they re­turn. Firms know that sack­ing you could land them in hot water, so they use in­sid­i­ous, un­der­hand tac­tics to force you to leave.’

Hanna’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to take her em­ployer to tri­bunal is un­usual; many new moth­ers don’t speak up, for fear of be­ing branded a trou­ble­maker or be­cause they are forced to sign a non-dis­clo­sure agree­ment. Just 0.6% of women who en­counter preg­nancy or ma­ter­nity dis­crim­i­na­tion raise a tri­bunal claim, ac­cord­ing to the EHRC.

‘Moth­ers are gagged,’ Brear­ley adds. ‘I know of many com­pa­nies, house­hold names, who win awards for di­ver­sity and in­vest­ing in women, but be­hind closed doors they get rid of a woman as soon as she gets preg­nant and force her to sign a non-dis­clo­sure agree­ment in re­turn for a measly sum of money.’

Then there’s the tim­ing is­sue: the dead­line to raise a tri­bunal claim for preg­nant and post­par­tum women is just three months. For most women, the thought of mas­ter­mind­ing a tri­bunal while car­ing for a new­born feels as hard as sit­ting an A-level in a for­eign lan­guage you’ve never learnt, hav­ing just drunk nine cock­tails and stayed awake for two weeks.

The tim­ing prob­lem held back City worker Laura*. ‘ Two years ago I was hap­pily work­ing 70- to 80-hour weeks. But when I be­came preg­nant, my re­la­tion­ship with my boss de­te­ri­o­rated rapidly. She found fault in all my work and bul­lied me about my “baby brain”. I was fright­ened, vul­ner­a­ble and ut­terly mis­er­able.’ Laura tried to re­turn to her job when her baby was nine months old. ‘But it was made clear that I wasn’t wel­come, so I hired a so­lic­i­tor. For­tu­nately I’d kept my emails and a di­ary of how I’d been treated, but the case wouldn’t be ac­cepted in a tri­bunal be­cause I hadn’t re­ported it within three months.’

Many em­ploy­ers still see moth­ers – who ac­tu­ally have pos­si­bly the most honed mul­ti­task­ing skills in the hu­man race – as the weak­est link in the work­place. EHRC re­search found a third of em­ploy­ers be­lieve that women who be­come preg­nant and new moth­ers in work are ‘gen­er­ally less in­ter­ested in ca­reer pro­gres­sion’ when com­pared to other em­ploy­ees.

With such en­demic views, it’s no won­der the num­ber of women in the top jobs in the board­rooms of Bri­tain’s big­gest com­pa­nies fell this year: only 30 women are in full-time ex­ec­u­tive roles at FTSE 250 firms, down from 38 last year. That’s 6.4% of the to­tal. Even in the UK’S home of anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion leg­is­la­tion, Par­lia­ment, the moth­er­hood-work mis­match is high­lighted by the fact that 45% of women MPS do not have chil­dren, com­pared with only 28% of male par­lia­men­tar­i­ans.

Lib Dem Jo Swin­son, a mother of two, was fa­mously dis­en­fran­chised on a key Brexit vote this sum­mer be­cause she was at home car­ing for her three-week-old baby. But, last month, she be­came the first MP to take her baby into a Com­mons de­bate, with 11-weekold Gabriel asleep in his sling. She said she hoped her move would ‘send a mes­sage that it re­ally needs to be pos­si­ble for par­ents to be able to com­bine their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties for their chil­dren with their work­ing lives, and all too of­ten that is made too dif­fi­cult’.

Kate, Laura, Nazneem, Hanna, Joeli and thou­sands of other work­ing moth­ers dis­crim­i­nated against for the crime of hav­ing chil­dren will be hop­ing so, too.

many em­ploy­ers still see moth­ers as the weak­est link in the work­place

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