The Equality and Human Rights Commission is set to publish results of a £1m study in a few months’ time that some campaigners believe will show a large rise in the number of women suffering discrimination due to pregnancy or taking maternity leave.
In a report from the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire program, the founder of a new project called Pregnant Then Screwed says it’s already starting to expose the scale of the problem and is hoping to build a case for change.
The founder of the site, Joeli Brearley, 36, experienced discrimination when she was pregnant and was shocked by how many similar stories she heard when she spoke to other mothers, with the website giving a snapshot of the way many women are treated when they announce their pregnancy to their boss.
“The problem is women are too scared to speak out for fear of being branded a troublemaker. Or if they still work for the company they are terrified of losing their jobs, particularly now that they are responsible for a child,” she told the Victoria Derbyshire programme.
“You also only have three months to take a case of discrimination to an employment tribunal, and this tends to come at a time when you are weak, exhausted and frankly, this just isn’t your priority. It all just gets brushed under the carpet.”
Since the first legislation protecting women from unfair dismissal because of pregnancy was introduced 40 years ago, successive laws have strengthened maternity rights so that women are now protected from any unfavourable treatment at work because of pregnancy or maternity leave.
Nine years ago however, research from the Equal Opportunities Commission found that half of all pregnant women suffered disadvantages at work, with 30,000 forced out of their jobs each year. Other women had been demoted, suffered harassment, missed out on promotion or lost contracts if they were self-employed.
The charity Maternity Action estimates as many as 60,000 pregnant women are now losing their jobs every year, with the increase being put down to the “explosive growth in precarious forms of employment” since the financial crisis.
They used the same research techniques as the Equal Opportunities Commission by taking the number of people who went to tribunal, as well as taking into account that this was only 3% of actual cases.
Some of the accounts of discrimination from the programme included a women who was self employed as a project manager in art and digital technology who had her contract ended with her main client after telling them she was pregnant, despite planning to cover her absence.
“I suddenly found myself four months pregnant and pretty much unemployed. It was terrifying,” Ms Brearley said.
“I became very stressed, felt very alone and vulnerable, and it totally shattered my confidence,” she said.
The programme also looked at solicitor Danielle Ayres who had been treated well by her employer, but while she was on maternity leave she encountered many women who were having problems. She soon found herself dishing out legal advice and now runs free advice clinics every six weeks.
Some of her cases include a woman who, after telling her boss she was pregnant, received the reply: “I hope you aren’t going to be taking the full 12 months off.”
Another returned to work to find that a reorganisation had taken place while she had been on maternity leave and that she had no desk or job.
“Mums don’t really know their rights, what they’re entitled to and how they should be treated,” said Mrs Ayres.
“Some employers hit the nail on the head and manage pregnancies and maternity leave to the letter, and they really know how to support working mums.
“But others – either by fault or design – get it completely wrong, and it’s really deeply disappointing that in the 21st Century people are facing these challenges.”
Mrs Ayres said the main problem that lawyers face is connecting the treatment the woman is receiving from employers to her pregnancy.
“You need to be able to show that the treatment, which can include dismissal, is as a result of the pregnancy or maternity, which is sometimes difficult to prove,” she explained.
As a result of the £1,200 fee being introduced to take a case to tribunal, all cases, including maternity discrimination has dropped by 70%.