Joeli Brearley was sacked by voicemail the day after she told her boss she was pregnant. It was 2013 and she was working for a charity. “I immediately thought: ‘The law will protect me,’” she recalls. “But I was also terrified, because I had bills to pay, and I thought: ‘Nobody’s going to employ me now.’”
Seething at the injustice, she wanted to take the company to court. But hers was a high-risk pregnancy and she had to pull out after doctors told her that stress would probably trigger an early labour. Instead, she set up the organisation Pregnant Then Screwed to fight for others who had experienced similar discrimination. Take the woman who was told her promotion was a done deal and she just had to do an interview as a formality. Just before the interview, she told her boss she was pregnant; suddenly, the new job wasn’t open to her. Or the woman who was bullied so mercilessly at work after she announced her pregnancy that she went into premature labour; as she sat in the neonatal clinic with her baby, who almost died, her boss called and made her role redundant.
In a normal year, the legal advice line run by Pregnant Then Screwed receives about 3,000 calls from women experiencing pregnancy and maternity discrimination at work. “Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve given 32,000 women free legal advice in some form,” says Brearley, who has written a book, Pregnant Then Screwed: The Truth About the Motherhood Penalty and How to Fix It. Companies, she believes, are taking advantage of the pandemic to remove pregnant women and mothers. A survey of nearly 20,000 mothers and pregnant women carried out by Pregnant Then Screwed found that 15% of them had been made redundant, or expected to be. “This is a generational rollback,” says Brearley. “Fifteen per cent of mothers leaving the workforce is enormous. It took us 20 years to increase maternal employment by just 9%.”
It isn’t just women worried about their livelihoods that the organisation has been speaking to, but pregnant women who “are terrified and worried about their safety and are being asked to work in dangerous situations where they could contract Covid”. In May last year, Pregnant Then Screwed conducted research with nearly 2,600 pregnant workers and found that a quarter of those working in the NHS were caring for Covid patients. Among BAME women, it was nearly a third.
Mothers are also more likely than fathers to be put on furlough to look after children. They are more likely to have left their jobs or reduced their hours and to do more childcare and housework. Pregnant Then Screwed also claims self-employed women who had taken maternity leave were discriminated against in the government’s Covid support package, although it lost its legal challenge over this last month.
The pandemic has only amplified the long-term discrimination experienced by pregnant women and mothers. The gender pay gap is driven largely by motherhood. In 2015, the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that 54,000 pregnant women are forced out of their jobs each year – about one in nine working pregnant women. There are very few consequences for employers – Brearley says that just 1% take their employers to a tribunal.
There is a time limit – a claim must be made within three months. How many pregnant women, or those with a new baby, can face going through that? Brearley didn’t even have the option of a tribunal. Because she wasn’t on staff at the charity, but rather self-employed and working under contract, she would have had to use the more expensive and onerous court system. “I was left with the choice of accessing justice, or the health of my unborn child. Had I continued with the case, and the baby had died, I would never have forgiven myself. I had to drop it.”
She felt “livid”, she says. She has heard hundreds of “vicious, horrific experiences that torment women for years and their mental health deteriorates. We’ve had women on our advice lines who are suicidal as a result of discrimination and women who have ended up homeless or have been told to have an abortion. When you’re at your most vulnerable and somebody gives you that extra punch, it lasts for a very long time.”
After her son was born, Brearley got another (better) job, but she couldn’t let go. “I thought: I can’t allow this to eat away at me every day; I’ve got to do something to change the situation.” She launched Pregnant Then Screwed in 2015, originally as a platform to tell women’s stories, but she soon discovered it was difficult to get women to speak, even anonymously; if they still had jobs, they were worried their employers would see it. Brearley also found that many women had been gagged with nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) in settling pregnancy discrimination claims.
“I have, in my head, a list of companies who win awards for gender equality and are held up as these beacons, and I know that, behind closed doors, when a woman gets pregnant, they kick her out of her job,” says Brearley. “And, on the way out, they make her sign an NDA, so she can’t speak publicly about it.” Expect to see many of them putting out messages of empowerment on social media to mark International Women’s Day next week. “It is so frustrating, knowing what is actually going on – all this discrimination that is completely covered up.” (For some women, an NDA has benefits – they may feel the anonymity protects their professional reputation and they don’t want to become known as a “troublemaker”.)
What Brearley would love, she says with a smile when we speak over a video call (her two sons are being looked after by her partner in another room), “is to see every woman who’s signed an NDA to break it on the same day and say what really has been going on. But you can’t force people to do that.”
Pregnant Then Screwed has grown – it is now Brearley’s full-time job – and offers legal advice and mentorship to support women going through tribunals, undertakes research and campaigns to improve conditions for pregnant women and mothers. It seems like a gigantic task – not just to change legislation, but to encourage a complete overhaul of society and gender stereotypes. Still, Brearley is convinced it can be done.
If there is a positive to the pandemic, she says, it may be that many fathers “have had the opportunity to spend more time with their children and many of them will be requesting flexible working”. And, although women have still done the bulk of the unpaid labour among heterosexual couples, men have taken on more than before and had their eyes opened to the reality of it.
Introducing paid leave for fathers – a use-or-lose policy, rather than one that can be shared – would help mothers go back to work and set the tone for more equal caring responsibilities. Men are also hampered by stigma – 85% of fathers say they want to spend more time with their children, “but [the perception is] that they then aren’t committed to their work”. She knows of one father on paternity leave who would receive emails from his boss that started: “Hello, nanny.”
Childcare should be considered essential infrastructure, she says. “Care is seen as the soft option; people don’t really believe that an investment in care is good for the economy.” Instead, the focus – particularly in getting us out of this current economic crisis – is on an industrial strategy. “But the research shows that an investment in care creates 2.7 times the number of jobs as equivalent investment in ‘build, build, build’, which is what the government has gone for. Also, we know that well-functioning societies value care and capitalism equally.”
The UK has, as a proportion of household income, the most expensive childcare in the world, which makes going back to work financially unviable for many mothers. In Sweden, for instance, where childcare is heavily subsidised, it costs parents up to 3% of household income, instead of the UK’s average of about 35%. The Women’s Budget Group, an independent organisation that analyses how government policies affect women, estimates that up to 95% of the cost of free universal preschool childcare could be recouped from the increase in employment and job-creation and reduced benefits. High-quality early-years education is also linked to better life chances for children. There is little appetite for properly funded childcare, because people don’t understand the economic benefits, says Brearley. And it is an expensive initial outlay. “You recoup that further down the line, but governments think short term rather than long term.”
Another important change, she says, would be a widespread adoption of a four-day working week, or at least increased flexibility: “We have such an obsession with presenteeism in the UK and yet, in terms of our productivity, we’re rubbish.” In a workplace that values people at desks, people who leave on time, particularly to pick a child up from an after-school club or childcare, “can’t compete”.
So, why are the needs of working mothers routinely ignored? “All I can think is that the government just doesn’t see it as a priority. It just does not believe that it’s important that mothers have access to the workplace, but it makes absolutely no sense, because it benefits the economy.”
Much of this, she says, is down to basic sexism. According to the British Social Attitudes survey, one in five people think women with children under school age should stay at home. In a 2006 collection of essays, Boris Johnson wrote that women had been “incentivised” into the workplace, as if they shouldn’t want to work, and that children of low-income working mothers were “more likely … to mug you”.
Brearley says: “There are deeply entrenched gender stereotypes that mean women blame themselves when they get pregnant and get pushed out of their jobs. They think they’re the burden; they believe that narrative, but the government certainly doesn’t help change that.” There is the enduring idea that having children is a “lifestyle choice”, as opposed to raising the next generation of people who will keep society going.
I like the idea of women going on strike. “I’d love to see it,” agrees Brearley. Women in Iceland held a national “day off” in 1975. “I love that they sold out of sausages because that was the easy ready meal of the day, and the men still call it the ‘long Friday’. It was obviously impactful and made an enormous difference [Iceland, although not perfect, is consistently considered the best place to be a woman]. I just don’t think we’d be able to pull it off in the UK.”
Still, she thinks that there is a lot of anger about the decisions that have been taken during the pandemic and hopes this will force change – at least when the schools reopen and when surviving another day with everyone fed, clothed and maybe even home schooled doesn’t feel like the pinnacle of achievement. “Mothers are livid, going by the women that I speak to. I feel absolutely furious that we’ve not been considered at every stage. We’ve just had enough.”
Joeli Brearley is the author of Pregnant Then Screwed: The Truth About the Motherhood Penalty published by Simon & Schuster on 4 March (RRP £14.99). To order a copy for for £13.04 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875 or go to theguardian.com/bookshop