Joeli Brearley, founder of the charity Pregnant Then Screwed, says the pandemic caused a spike in maternity discrimination at work against pregnant women and mothers. Here she tells us how we can tackle the root causes and how her latest campaign against Non Disclosure Agreements is taking off.
Pregnant Then Screwed runs a free advice line to support women dealing with maternity discrimination at work and taking legal action against their employers. On average, they receive roughly 1,500 calls a year from women experiencing pregnancy and maternity discrimination at work. Since the start of the pandemic, though, that number rose to a shocking 38,000 women and in 2021 alone the charity provided over 81,000 women with tailored support.
Joeli Brearley founded the charity in 2015 after experiencing maternity discrimination at work first-hand – she was sacked at four months pregnant, the day after informing her employer.
“I was completely mortified. I started legal proceedings but then discovered I was having a high-risk pregnancy and the doctor said to me: ‘Whatever you do, don’t get stressed.’ The doctor explained how stress could trigger early labour and if that happened at four months pregnant my baby would die. I felt like I was forced to drop the case,” she says.
Pandemic Maternity Discrimination
Brearley describes the sheer volume of women reaching out for help over the past two years as “insane”. A survey of 20,000 working mothers, compiled by the charity, revealed that 15% of mothers either were made redundant or expected to be made redundant during the pandemic, and of those, 46%
said a lack of childcare provision played a role in their redundancy.
The law is clear – you cannot discriminate against women for being pregnant. But Brearley says it could be strengthened. “Lots of women are made redundant, for example, when they're pregnant or when they return from maternity leave. And the law around redundancy is simply that you only have enhanced protection when you are on maternity leave, you don't have it when you're pregnant, and you don't have it when you return,” she explains.
“Savvy employers who want to push you out via redundancy methods will wait until you return from maternity leave before they make you redundant.”
So, what can be done?
“You only have three months to make a tribunal claim, which is a real barrier,” she adds. “The time limit is a real problem, as is the cost, as is the complexity. If you’ve never had any experience with trying to navigate the tribunal process it’s really, really challenging – and incredibly stressful. New mums shouldn’t be forced to make a choice between the health of themselves, their baby and justice.”
The fight against Non Disclosure Agreements
Brearley is also campaigning to stop employers using non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to mask bad behaviour. NDAs are currently being used by employers to cover up the treatment of some of their staff – including pregnancy and maternity discrimination.
“We support women taking legal action against their employer, and every single one of our mentees, either gets to tribunal, or they sign a non-disclosure agreement. I would say about 90% of them will sign a non-disclosure agreement,” she says.
“It's a settlement agreement, so they get a payout, but they’re gagged – they can’t ever speak publicly about what happened, which compounds the trauma of discrimination. You aren’t able to ever tell anybody about what has happened to you publicly, which just masks the problem for everybody. We only know about a very small number of cases, but actually, I know that behind the closed doors of lots of companies, this is happening all the time – they're just using non-disclosure agreements to silence women. NDAs are pernicious. They are a scourge on fair workplaces and they are deliberately used to shut women down and to stop them from organising.”
Specifically, the charity has recently been supporting a number of women who had signed gagging clauses for Channel 4 News enabling the company to hide alleged cases of harassment and discrimination. The alleged impact on the women affected by this – their mental health and their careers, has been devastating with one woman going as far to say that the pressure placed on her to sign an NDA made her suicidal. “We are asking that Channel 4 New releases all women from their NDAs. Channel 4 News deny these allegations but if they haven’t used NDAs to hide abhorrent behaviour directed at women then why not agree to release them? No employee should ever experience discrimination or harassment and then be gagged.”
Know your rights
It’s clear that the charity wants to help give mothers a voice, but also support newly pregnant women understand their rights.
“All women should know their legal rights,” says Brearley. “You should know the basics of what constitutes discrimination, and how to challenge it.”
She also recommends addressing any issues head on with your employer. “What we often find is that some types of discrimination that women experience, their employer doesn't mean to discriminate against them, it's just a breakdown in communication,” she says.
“Usually this is the employers fault – they will panic as soon as a woman says she's pregnant, worry that they're going to do something wrong, and as a result, will step away from working directly with that woman or will start to sort of judge her in a different way because she's pregnant, or perhaps not offer her a promotion because they think, ‘oh, she's got too much on her plate’.”
Her best advice? Try to have a frank conversation with your employer about how you're feeling, what they're doing that you're not happy with, “and often that can break down any communication barriers and start to improve your relationship,” she says. “If that doesn't work, or the discrimination is far more overt, then document everything, try and get as much in writing as possible or as many witnesses as you can to stuff that’s happening, and give us a call and we will talk you through what your legal rights are.”
And as for the employers that have used NDAs to silence their employees? “One day, they might just rise up and tell the world what really happened behind those closed doors; and we will be here to support them,” she concludes.
Joeli Brearley is the author of Pregnant Then Screwed: The Truth About the Motherhood Penalty (Simon & Schuster Ltd, £14.99).
At the last count over 27,000 people had signed Pregnant the Screwed's Change petition to release the former Channel 4 employees from their NDAs. To sign and add your voice to the campaign click here>>