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Women facing maternity discrimination at work

Charlott Saunders had been working in a contact center in Leavesden for over a year when she discovered she was pregnant with her first child in 2018. Quickly promoted within the company, she had big plans to climb the rungs up to management.

“I’ve always been very driven by my career,” recalls Charlott, now 27. “Everyone was shocked when they found out I was pregnant because they thought I was going to take over the world.

“I told them I still was – I was just having a baby in the process.”

Early in her pregnancy, Charlott told management she planned to return to work soon after having the baby, but raised concerns about returning to her current work schedule – four nights, four nights off – with a baby in tow.

Then, just 12 weeks before the start of her maternity leave, in August 2018, a new position opened up. “I really wanted the job,” says the 27-year-old. “But I was afraid that I wouldn’t have it because I was pregnant.”

However, much to her delight, Charlotte got the job – much to the chagrin of some of her colleagues. “There were conversations right in front of me – people saying I was pregnant and about to f**k for a year,” she recalled.

“I felt like the whole floor was talking about how I shouldn’t have this job because I was pregnant.”

Feeling uneasy and insecure, Charlott reported her concerns to management at the retail company ASOS, where she worked, and the chatter around the office died down.

After giving birth to a daughter in November 2018, the new mum took four months off maternity leave, before starting to think about returning to work as her statutory maternity leave was £400 a month, instead full salary she had been. reception, was about to start.

Charlott said when she was promoted during her pregnancy it caused some of her colleagues to ripple (Picture: Supplied)

“We live near London and our rent is ridiculous,” Charlott says, explaining why she had to go back to the office.

However, now that she had to think about her daughter, she asked for reduced hours upon her return.

‘I asked to work two full nights [8pm-7am), rather than four, wihch is what I had been doing,’ explains Charlott, who previously would spend most of her week catching up on her sleep during the day time and then spending her three days off trying to adjust her body clock, before starting over again.

‘It would have given me a better work life balance during my daughter’s first year, but they told me that wasn’t possible in my new role. I didn’t know what else to put on the table.’

Women have made massive strides over the last decades, demanding their workplace rights. However, new mothers are still experiencing huge discrimination.

In 2015, the most recent large-scale report into pregnancy and maternity discrimination found that 77% of working mums experience discrimination in the workplace and 54,000 women a year lose jobs for getting pregnant.

Seven years on, not much has changed. If anything, the pandemic has widened inequalities for mothers in the workplace.

‘Employees who have a close physical presence to their boss tend to do better in terms of pay and perceived competence than those who are not physically close to their employer,’ Joeli Brearley, founder and CEO of Pregnant Then Screwed, explains. 

 Joeli Brearley, founder and CEO of Pregnant Then Screwed

Joeli Brearly set up Pregnant Then Screwed to help mothers tackle workplace discrimination (Picture: Supplied)

‘Because our parental leave system is set up in such a way that women tend to take nine to twelve months of maternity leave (whilst men take very little paternity leave), it means women bear the brunt of proximity bias. 

‘There is well-documented research that shows that many people view women as distracted and uncommitted to their jobs once they have children. This sexism means that mothers are often side-lined.’

To top it all off, Charlott had also been diagnosed with postnatal depression right before her first keeping-in-touch (KIT) day, in April 2019; a culminating effect of work stress and health complications with her daughter. The darkness of depression overshadowed many of the joyful moments with her little girl.  

During her KIT day, she had a meeting with an all-male management team. ‘I told them I felt like I was having to make a decision between being a mum and having a career,’ she recalls. ‘I didn’t want to pick either because they were both so important to me.’

Her vulnerability was met with, what she says was, ‘patronising sympathy’ before she was told that management’s hands were tied. ‘I almost felt like I had been groomed by them,’ says Charlott. ‘They made me feel very special, but then all of the sudden, my skill set or me as a person didn’t matter anymore. I felt they had written me off as a female, a young person, and a mum.’

In a bid to find a fair compromise, she put in a second request to work four half-nights a week, from 8pm to 12am. That was also denied. 

‘I was furious,’ Charlott remembers. ‘I was so upset and trying to think about what I was going to do now. I tried telling them I was there to make a career, not just to work a nine to five. I was devoted to the store.’

As money started to run out, Charlott had to make the difficult decision to return to work in June 2019, following the shift pattern she had before the baby. The impact it had on her was enormous.

Charlott in a black dress, holding her baby daughter who is wearing a yellow dress

Charlott says she was devoted to her job, but also wanted to have a good work/life balance following the birth of her daughter (Picture: Supplied)

‘I missed out on so much when she was a baby because I was knackered all the time,’ remembers Charlott. ‘I forked out nearly a grand a month for childcare, and they would be the ones to tell me about all the amazing milestones my baby would hit, such as her first steps and her words. I even missed her saying mum or dad for the first time.

‘I felt like such a terrible mum, because I was either working or sleeping at home when I wasn’t working.’

Nearly six months later, she put in a third request for daytime hours. Again, it was rejected and Charlott was told she either needed to take the full-time job or not work at the company. ‘I knew everything I had tried had failed. My daughter was coming second because I couldn’t lose my job with them,’ she recalls. ‘My dream job had become my nightmare.’

In the end, Charlott left her job to work as a virtual assistant in February 2020. ‘It was the best decision I ever made,’ she admits. ‘I’d felt so trapped and suffocated. I could finally breathe easy again.’

According to a spokesperson from ASOS: ‘Flexible working sits at the heart of our approach and we always explore options to achieve this with colleagues.

‘Sometimes, however, specific roles cannot be adapted in this way because of the impact on teams and we are sorry we could not reach an accommodation in this case.’

The company adds, ‘ASOS is proud of its diverse, equitable and inclusive culture, in which there is no place for discrimination.’

According to Brearly from Pregnant and Screwed, giving working mums ultimatums like Charlott’s rarely works out well for the employee or the company.

‘It’s bad for business,’ she explains. ‘Employers are not judging their employees based on their skill and ability, but rather on where they are sitting. They are allowing their bias to influence who they promote. Ultimately this will mean they are likely to lose talented members of staff.’

Research has also shown that the more women a company has at the top, the more profitable they will be. Brearley argues this is a clear case for ensuring women are not left behind when they have children: ‘If a company is not prepared to deal with their bias and they side-line women when they have children, they will inevitably have fewer women at a senior level and therefore, they will be less profitable.’

While Charlott chose not to pursue legal action in her case, some women who feel discriminated against do go down the difficult route of raising a grievance.

Black and white image of Claire Chappell

Going down the grievance route could end with a working mum signing an NDA if she reaches a settlement, says lawyer Claire Chappell (Picture: Supplied)

Explaining the process, Clare Chappell, Senior Solicitor at didlaw, says: ‘This is where we set out what we say has happened and why it’s discriminatory.’ A claim is considered proven if the employee wins in an Employment Tribunal and most will reach a settlement deal as a solution.

Following a deal, most women are then made to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA), ensuring the employee does not speak about her experience. ‘They are a necessary reality,’ adds Chappell. ‘If you want to reach a deal and avoid litigation, your employer will expect you to accept restrictions on being able to talk about what has led to that deal.’

Katie* knew what it felt like to be discriminated against as a working mother. After the birth of her first child, she was made redundant from her job as a buyer for a major supermarket on the eighth month of her maternity leave, and then made to sign an NDA in response to her claim.

Although she went on to work for another big-name supermarket in a full-time, all-consuming job, Katie decided to take a transfer to another position within the company in January 2018, so she could spend more time with her baby. ‘It was quite a monotonous role, but I was just really grateful that it let me spend one day a week with my little boy,’ she says. 

‘My work-life balance was as good as I could ever have imagined and I was getting really good reviews and feedback in work.’

In December 2019, Katie found out she was pregnant with her second child. Leading up to maternity leave, she told management she was open to other opportunities in the business as long as she could maintain her part-time hours.

Weeks before finishing up, the business made the announcement that every contract in head offices was changing to four day weeks plus thirteen Saturdays a year, something Katie felt confused by, but decided to put on the back burner until she came back from maternity leave.

A little over a month after having her baby, in September 2020, Katie received a phone call from HR informing her that the team she was working with had undergone a restructure. She was assured there would be an appropriate role available for her upon her return.

pregnant woman looking out of the window

One mum told that she felt ‘screwed over’ by her employers after returning from mat leave (Picture: Getty Images)

In April 2021, Katie reached out to HR and her line manager to let them know that she planned to return in August. ‘But no one replied to my email,’ the 38-year-old says. ‘A week later I sent the email again. No one replied. I sent it a third time and still no reply.’

Katie texted her line manager, who told her they had seen the email, but had been very busy and someone would get in touch with her. ‘I felt really angry,’ she recalls, remembering how frustrated it felt to be ignored. ‘I was out of sight, out of mind, and not a priority at all.’

Eventually, Katie received an email explaining that the only role in the business she could return to was in a notoriously intense, full-on department.

Katie attempted to get her working pattern confirmed with her new line manager to ensure she could secure childcare but was unable to nail down confirmation with him prior to her return.

Instead, she arrived back to work in August, still unsure of what her shift pattern would be and doubting the role she was given was an appropriate part-time role. ‘All my predecessors had done the role on a full-time basis,’ Katie recounts. 

She asked her line manager why she was put in a full-time role on a part-time contract. ‘He admitted he didn’t even know I had a part-time contract. Nobody had even bothered to check. He claimed it was lost in translation because of the contract changes.’

Within a month of being back at work, Katie was massively struggling, due to the huge amount of work she was responsible for despite only working part-time. ‘I felt screwed over,’ she says. ‘Like they were taking advantage of me, getting their money’s worth out of me.’

Close up of a pregnant woman with a pink t-shirt which shows her belly, which she is holding

Feeling gaslit, is another keyword often used by working mothers who say they have suffered discriminarion in the workplace (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

‘I felt like I had two options,’ Katie remembers. ‘Either I could work to the point of breaking in order to get a full-time job done in part-time hours. Or I fail, jeopardising the reputation I had built for over 15 years because I wasn’t performing to the standards I always had.’

Finally, after a series of meetings and grievances, an occupational health assessment was carried out in February 2022 confirming Katie’s role was indeed not part-time suitable. ‘I’m really confused about why this took so long,’ Katie says. ‘Why all the processes I followed exactly – the grievances and appeals – that are meant to protect me, failed. Why nobody would listen to me.’

Instead of being offered a position appropriate for her part-time contract, Katie believes she was overlooked and discriminated against. ‘Because I wasn’t in the building, I was unfavourably selected for that role,’ she says. ‘I’ve had to build up a level of resilience to cope, but it has been absolutely draining. I feel like I was gaslit – told there was no issue when that clearly wasn’t the case.’

Feeling gaslit, is another keyword often used by working mothers who say they have suffered discriminarion in the workplace. ‘Women often say they feel like they are going mad,’ explains Brearley, referring to the many stories she’s heard from mums battling for a fair working environment. 

‘They are working just as hard as their colleagues, but they are ignored in meetings and don’t receive the same rewards. Comments are made about their dedication or ability.’

After suffering a tragic miscarriage in March 2020, Rhian* returned to her patient facing role in a hospital, during the pandemic. ‘I found it really hard going because mentally I hadn’t dealt with the miscarriage,’ the 37-year-old recalls. ‘I was having flashbacks, struggling day to day, and everything was startling to me.’

'March Of The Mummies' Protest In London. One woman holds a placard that says: 'Don't be a dummy I can work and be a mummy'

Women at a 2017 Pregnant The Screwed protest called March of The Mummies (Picture: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Rhian sought out private treatment from a psychotherapist who could offer her Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy for her trauma and was told the only slots available were Tuesday mornings at 11am.

When she requested to work from home on Tuesdays, there was lots of back and forth with her manager, with involvement from occupational health, before she finally got his approval. ‘I was just made to feel I was making some superhuman request,’ Rhian says. ‘All I was asking for was a little consideration and human decency.’

Her manager had reported to HR that Rhian had missed work during the period she worked from home on Tuesdays. ‘I had to go through with HR, isolate the dates I had been working, and show them emails and projects that I had been working on,’ Rhian remembers with frustration.

In June 2020, Rhian found out she was expecting again and grew anxious at being a pregnant, asthmatic woman working in close proximity to Covid patients. ‘I felt like I was a living time bomb, and with a baby involved, I was even more scared,’ she remembers. After raising her concerns with Occupational Health, she was moved from the hospital into a role supporting nursing students with their clinical work.

Just before going on maternity leave in March 2021, Rhian and her manager agreed that she would return for ten keeping-in-touch days between January and March 2022, so when Rhian got in touch in December 2021, she fully expected someone to respond to her about coming back into work. She spent two months sending emails and heard nothing in response until the 31st of January, when she was told that both her manager and two other people on her team had been promoted while she was gone.

I just feel like I’ve been cast aside

‘I asked, what about me?’ Rhian remembers, wondering why her years of experience and hard work before having the baby seemed null and void after maternity leave. ‘He simply told me I had been off.’

Her manager then questioned whether or not she was planning to come back at all, claiming he hadn’t heard anything from Rhian. It was at this point that she put in a formal grievance with HR, a battle she is still fighting today.

The feeling of being gaslit and left in the dust hasn’t just impacted Rhian’s career, it has affected her personal life too. ‘It made me feel a bit resentful of being a mother,’ she admits. ‘It makes me wonder how employable I am now. I don’t sleep at night, but instead ruminate about how I’m going to pay the bills or talk to a new employer about my situation. The only time I feel comfort is when I’m trying to get my daughter to sleep in the middle of the night.’ 

Her daughter is the only thing that has kept her going throughout the long battle.

‘I just feel like I’ve been cast aside,’ Rhian goes on. ‘Like I don’t matter. It’s so unjust. All I set out to do was to have my child, take maternity leave, and come back to a job that will help me raise a family. But it feels like, because I don’t suit them, because I’m not convenient for them, they just chose to ignore me.’

According to Brearly, employers need to understand that working mothers aren’t expecting workplaces to bend over backwards for them. They are simply requesting respect and consideration as hard-working employees going through a life transition.

‘If an employer is prepared to be flexible, particularly in those early days, it can make a world of difference for a returning mum,’ she concludes.

‘And if you show you are prepared to work in collaboration with your team to create a working environment that gets the best out of them then you will reap the benefits.’

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