Annie Ridout 30th January 2018
I was working as the in-house copywriter for a tech startup when I found out I was pregnant. At first, I felt supported. My line-manager negotiated a higher day rate for me and we talked about what would happen following maternity leave. She was keen to get me on a permanent PAYE contract so that I’d receive maternity pay.
Only, HR had different ideas. They called a meeting with me and said that because I was freelance, my contract would be terminated as soon as I left to have my baby. There would probably be a job for me after the birth, they added, but they wouldn’t put it in writing. I wouldn’t be put on PAYE.
I left that meeting and cried. In that moment, I realised that I couldn’t keep both my baby and my job. By that point in my employment, 18 months in, I should have been on a permanent contract. There are tax implications to keeping on self-employed staff long-term. And arguably, I should have been entitled to benefits like maternity pay.
But it was my first pregnancy, and I didn’t feel confident enough to put up a fight, so I left quietly – telling them I’d return when the baby was 10 weeks old, working from home initially. My new manager suggested that I’d probably want to take a bit longer, and he was right: I wasn’t ready to return by that point. So that was the end of my job there.
I’m not alone in feeling kicked out of a job after becoming pregnant. A 2015 study by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that around 54,000 new mothers were losing their jobs across Britain every year. And, surprisingly, pregnant women and mothers report more discrimination and poor treatment at work that they did 10 years ago.
Pregnancy discrimination comes in many different guises. For me, it was the unreasonable termination of my contract. For others, it’s not being considered for a promotion, being made redundant or fired, feeling bullied, no longer being included in important meetings. It can be overt or covert – and this is what makes it so complex.
Employment lawyer and ELAS consultant Jacob Demeza-Wilkinson explains that discrimination can begin before a woman even becomes pregnant. “We have had cases in the past where female candidates have been asked during a job interview, either directly or indirectly, whether it is their intention to have children, and when.
“Often answering yes and soon can, unfortunately, have an effect on the outcome of the interview. There is no longer any place for questions like this and in fact this would amount to discrimination on the grounds of sex and can still lead to a claim, even if you never employ the individual.”
While this isn’t classed as maternity discrimination, it is the beginning of a woman’s journey into mistreatment based on her sex and childbearing potential. It then seems to ramp up once the pregnancy is announced and the mother begins enquiring about maternity leave and pay.
During employment, we find that employers will often ask us how they can dismiss an employee as soon as they have announced that they are pregnant
“During employment, we find that employers will often ask us how they can dismiss an employee as soon as they have announced that they are pregnant,” says Demeza-Wilkinson, “and they often hold particularly old-fashioned views about the ability of an employee to complete their daily tasks whilst pregnant, or about the levels of absence and/or medical appointments.
“Dismissing an employee for falling pregnant is discriminatory. After having a baby, employees will often look to take maternity leave, which is their full legal right. Sometimes employers are not happy about this and will attempt to remove their role, or manage them out of the business whilst they are off on maternity leave.”
Again, he says, if there is no real business justification and they are removing the role solely because the employee is on maternity leave then this would be discriminatory. And yet, so many women are losing their jobs – or feeling pushed out – during and following pregnancy.
Legally, and contrary to what some people think, pregnant employees and those on maternity leave can be made redundant or be dismissed. But it is subject to a few factors, says Demeza-Wilkinson: “Most importantly, you need a good reason for following either of these routes.
“For example, if a pregnant employee is caught stealing, they should be treated in the same way as any other employee and taken through a disciplinary procedure. Equally, if the workload of a business diminishes during an employee’s maternity leave to the point where significant staff cuts need to be made, then it is fine to include an employee on maternity leave in any consultations.”
Crucially, he says, these issues must be dealt with professionally and by following a proper protocol – including keeping the pregnant woman, or new mother, included in conversations, even if she is on maternity leave at the time. But often, this simply doesn’t happen.
Anniki Sommerville was a managing partner at a market research firm and received an email three weeks into her leave, just after the birth of her daughter, saying that her position no longer existed. They said she’d get the same package when she returned – but she didn’t.
I felt like I was the guilty party because I’d taken a year off
“I discovered my role had been given to someone else,” she says. “I stayed on for two years part-time but it was pretty bad. To be honest, I felt like I was the guilty party because I’d taken a year off.”
When it was announced that her job would now be undertaken by someone else, a colleague questioned the boss and Sommerville says he replied: “Well she’s having a baby”. She says: “It was as if that meant I no longer wanted my career to continue. I’d worked there 15 years. It got quite ugly in the end and has impacted on my confidence.”
Jenny Thomas had a similar experience. She was working in fashion, as a PR manager, when she left to have her first baby. “My replacement got her feet under the table and the department changed slightly; became a well-oiled machine,” she says. Jenny had mentioned an interest in copywriting so they made a new role for her and proposed a three-day week.
It felt like I had been cleverly managed out
“I returned to work and found that sometimes I had quiet times so would ask for more work. I was then made redundant after a couple of months of being back. It felt like I had been cleverly managed out. The copywriting role was made up for me, and they didn’t know how it would go, but the speed with which I was disposed of seems too calculated.”
Thomas was already feeling confused about her new identity as a mother and was keen to work, to “give me back some of ‘me’”, she says. “I wanted to wear work clothes, have work chats. I wanted to be useful and work hard. I felt useless instead. Like I didn’t matter.”
Pregnant women are entitled, by law, to:
- Protection against pregnancy or maternity-related unfair dismissal (available from day one)
- Paid time off for antenatal care (available from day one)
- Up to 12 months’ maternity leave.
- The option to replace some maternity leave with shared parental leave (for those with 26 weeks’ continuous employment and who meet the relevant criteria)
- Statutory maternity pay (for those with 26 weeks’ continuous employment at the 15th week before expected due date)
- Or maternity allowance (for those who do not meet the criteria for maternity pay).
Self-employed women have the same rights regarding maternity discrimination, says Demeza-Wilkinson. “If you were to stop using a freelancer’s services because she became pregnant or stopped working to look after the child, and that was the principal reason for the termination of services, she would have the right to claim discrimination and subsequently compensation.”
He says that while her damages may be somewhat limited, as she wouldn’t be able to claim unfair dismissal as well, “discrimination compensation is uncapped so even on its own it can be costly.”
If you have experienced maternity discrimination, Pregnant Then Screwed offers free support and advice.
Annie Ridout 30th January 2018