Joeli Brealey, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, speaks about her experience with maternal discrimination and what we can do to help support change
As part of our #NotMyJob campaign, here is Joeli Brealey’s story…
When I discovered I was pregnant in 2013, I was working for a children’s charity on a project I had designed and secured all the funding for. When I was 4 months gone, I informed them I was pregnant by email, having planned everything meticulously to ensure there would be no problems for them, and signing off with the suggestion we follow up with a discussion to make sure everyone was happy. The next day they sacked me by voicemail. No reason was given, they simply said ‘your contract is being pulled, please hand everything over immediately’.
I vividly remember the moment I listened to that message. My hand started shaking and my vision went blurry. I was shocked, heartbroken, utterly terrified. I had a mortgage to pay and would soon have a new mouth to feed – and who was going to employ a visibly pregnant woman? Knowing I couldn’t let them get away with this, I employed a solicitor to act on my behalf and demand compensation from the charity, but my old bosses just ignored the demand so the next stage was to take them to a tribunal.
‘I was shocked, heartbroken and totally terrified’
Amongst the chaos, I attended a routine doctor’s appointment where they suggested I have my cervix checked as I had undergone surgery in 1999 due to stage 2 cervical cancer. They scanned me and discovered that my cervix had almost completely vanished. The doctor told me ‘Your situation is dangerous – if we don’t act quickly the baby might come, and at 20 weeks it is unlikely he will survive.’ They booked me in for a suture operation the following to bolt my cervix together to force it into position. The doctor’s parting words were: ‘Whatever you do, don’t get stressed. Stress will make the situation far worse.’
Don’t get stressed… I was 4 months pregnant and unemployed, my confidence was shattered and I thought my career was over. I had no idea how I would afford the rent on our flat the following month let alone how I would survive maternity leave. Whether or not to be stressed was not a choice I had the privilege of making. But, I could choose to reduce that stress. Raising a tribunal claim is complex and costly, taking an employer to tribunal is one of the most stressful experiences anyone can undertake. I was left with another choice, further risk the health of my unborn child and attempt to access the justice I clearly deserved, or drop the case. As I had 3 months, less one day to raise a tribunal claim, I couldn’t wait until my baby was born before I started proceedings. I couldn’t live with myself if I hadn’t done everything in my power to ensure I didn’t go into labour prematurely. So, with a heavy heart I stopped the process.
The next day, I felt empty. The chance of justice had spurred me on. It wasn’t just that I wanted financial compensation, I also wanted to ensure my former employers to know they had behaved badly, and I wanted reassurance that they would never put another woman through the same horrific experience. But that chance had been taken away from me.
‘Who wants to hire a trouble maker?’
After I had my son, I attended parent groups and talked to other mums about my experience. To my horror, I discovered that far from mine being an isolated incident, this was happening all the time. Women were being sacked, made redundant, their careers were stagnating, they were being demoted, bullied and harassed – all for daring to want a family and a career. But no-one was talking about it. Just like sexual harassment, this was happening behind closed doors as to speak out would make you a troublemaker and who wants to hire a troublemaker? If you had the courage to try and access justice, you are made to sign a non-disclosure agreement, gagging you from speaking publicly.
I launched Pregnant Then Screwed on International Women’s Day last year, initially as a way of exposing this problem by giving women a safe space to tell their stories anonymously. This was not only cathartic for the victim, but by reading other people’s experiences, women encountering pregnancy discrimination started to feel less alone, the stories started to give women the courage they needed to challenge their employers behaviour. The campaign quickly gained momentum and soon the stories were flooding in. From a woman who was suffering from hyperemesis when her boss complained she was spending too much time in the toilet and told her she needed to vomit in the bin next to his desk in an open plan office, to another whose boss told her she should have an abortion or risk ruining her career.
Accessing justice is incredibly difficult, less than 1% of victims raise a tribunal claim. Part of the reason is the tremendous amount of stress the victim is placed under, so I set up a mentor scheme which pairs up women who have been through an employment tribunal with a woman about to go through that process to act as a support and friend. As well as the UK, we have also launched the campaign in the US, Spain and Sweden. so I convinced an employment lawyer to help me setup a free legal advice line to give women the tools and confidence they needed to challenge discrimination when it occurs.
Maternal discrimination: The facts
The statistics show that 54,000 women a year (that’s almost 1 in 8) lose their job for daring to procreate and 77% of working mums encounter negative or discriminatory treatment in the workplace (that’s almost 400,000). Those figures are from a report commissioned by the Government, produced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2015. The same report was conducted in 2005 and in the last 10 years, the numbers have almost doubled. Far from improving, the situation is drastically deteriorating. The report included various suggestions for legislative change, these were supported by the Women and Equalities Select committee, yet since the report the Government has taken no decisive action whatsoever, in that time over 140,000 women have lost their jobs. We have set up a ‘doom clock’ to count the number of women who have been pushed out of work while the Government does nothing.
In response to this we conducted a major protest on 31st October 2017 in 6 cities across the UK called March of the Mummies. Attendees dressed as mummies (the walking dead kind) to symbolise the archaic legislation that is currently in place to protect mums and change the underlying issues which create discrimination, and of course it was Halloween! The demonstration had 5 demands and we continue to lobby the Government for these changes:
- Increase the time limit to raise a tribunal claim from 3 months to (at least) 6 months
- Require companies to report on how many flexible working requests are made and how many are granted
- Give both parents access to 6 weeks parental leave paid at 90% of salary
- Give the self-employed access to statutory shared parental pay
- Subsidise childcare from 6 months old, rather than 3 years
What can you do to support change?
- Firstly tell your employer to sign up to the Working Forward programme ran by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It’s a nationwide campaign, backed by some of the UK’s leading businesses and industry bodies, to make workplaces the best they can be for pregnant women and new parents. It’s also completely free!
- Sign our online petitions to support our 5 demands.
- Write to your MP and make sure they have signed our Early Day Motion in Parliament to increase the time limit to raise a tribunal claim.
- Follow our campaign on Instagram to keep up to date with our events, protests, lobbying and other activities
- If you or anyone you know is encountering discrimination, call our free legal advice line, we can help you: 0161 930 5300
- Why not try and set up a scheme at your own work to support women or men returning to work after a period of parental leave? The research shows that this is a key time when many women drop out of the workforce as they can feel alone and unsupported.
- We are running a series of events starting in Manchester on 12th May to help mothers find work that works for them. The events are called Pregnant Then Screwed Live – the UK Festival of Motherhood and work