‘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
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