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When Discussing Sex Discrimination, Don't Forget Pregnant Women

In the UK alone, up to 54,000 women lost their jobs in 2017 as a result of maternity discrimination. Why are workplaces failing new mothers?
Photo by Bonninstudio via Stocksy

Last year's Harvey Weinstein allegations of sexual abuse and rape have triggered an ongoing outpouring of women’s stories of workplace harassment, with the #MeToo and Time's Up movements taking aim at sexist and abusive behavior everywhere from Hollywood to Capitol Hill and Westminster. But there’s one element of workplace sexism that is conspicuously absent from the discussion: pregnancy and maternity discrimination.


In the UK, the Equality and Human Rights Commission investigating pregnancy and maternity discrimination found as many as 54,000 mothers in the country may have been laid off as a result of pregnancy in 2017. This is up from 30,000 in 2005. A staggering three in four mothers said they had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy, while on maternity leave, or on return from maternity leave.

Still, the true extent of maternity discrimination remains unclear. Many disputes are settled out of court with settlements and confidentiality agreements. The stress of a newborn and the financial pressure of litigation leave many exhausted and disillusioned with the legal system. According to the commission, many companies protect discriminative managers and leave them free to reoffend, despite costing employers an estimated £46.6 million to £113 million over the year following the event.

Sarah was in a senior leadership position in PR at a multinational company when she became pregnant. (Her name has been changed to prevent her compromising the confidentiality clause of her settlement). She says that her workplace publicly extolled the benefits of working mothers—but that its attitude changed once she became pregnant herself.

Watch: Maternity Leave: How America Is Failing Its Mothers

First came negative comments, including calling her maternity leave a holiday, and jokes that she was being hormonal. Next she found herself uninvited to senior leadership meetings. Finally, she was told that she was underperforming and was laid off.


What makes maternity discrimination different from other types of discrimination, she said, was the slow creep with which it took hold of her life. It was subtle—and peppered with niceties—before it culminated in redundancy when she was due to return from her five and a half month maternity leave.

“It is kind of like a pervasive feed of discrimination that is so subtle it is only with the benefit of hindsight that you can see it clearly.”

In 2013, she told her two line managers that she was pregnant and received a positive response. “He was a bit taken aback but sort’ve happy and excited for me. She was also taken aback but congratulated me,” Sarah says. “Later he told me they both went out to dinner and discussed whether they should start replacing me.”

As her pregnancy developed, her male manager—a father with two small children—seemed sympathetic and told her to work from home if she felt ill or tired.

When her performance was criticized and she wasn’t invited to two offsite senior leadership meetings, Sarah began to feel uneasy. She tried to put it out of her mind when she went on maternity leave.

“I got an email that week before I was due to return. On Sunday, they called me into the office where I was I informed that my role was being made redundant and made into two roles—one junior and one more senior."

Sarah moved quickly and got in touch with an external mediator to advocate for her, though she was worried about potential blowback. “Because of my role in PR there is a concern about your reputation,” she explains. “There is a fear of being seen as a trouble maker or whistleblower.”


According to Didlaw law firm director Karen Jackson, many maternity discrimination stories are eerily similar. Photo by GIC via Stocksy

Alice was also a PR professional who thought sexism was a thing of the past. (Her name has also been changed to prevent her compromising the confidentiality clause of her settlement). This was until she told her employers she was pregnant. She was then subjected to months of bullying, intimidation, and belittling.

“It would be things like slamming doors, telling my clients I didn’t know what I was doing, telling my team I wasn’t managing them properly, throwing my work at me,” she says.

Following advice from Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), a government-funded organisation that handles workplace disputes, she called a meeting with her bosses, one of whom admitted that they had treated her badly. She felt vindicated. But shortly after the meeting—and a week into medical leave for stress—she was made redundant. Alice realized she was a victim of maternity discrimination after speaking with friends and got in touch with a lawyer.

Didlaw law firm director and employment rights specialist Karen Jackson says that many discrimination stories were eerily similar. While reports on increases in maternity discrimination may also reflect increased awareness, she says, the issue was “certainly not getting any better."

“Once they tell their boss they are pregnant, this is where the negativity starts: ‘Here is your appraisal—it’s bad.’ The tide just turns. It is like they are being accused of a crime they did not commit. I have tried to boycott companies that I have dealt with. If I did that I wouldn’t be able to wash my clothes, or brush my teeth. It is everywhere."


Jackson says that one of the most profound issues was the subsequent silencing of women after settlement. “With whistleblowers, you can’t gag somebody. But the confidentiality obligations of the settlements mean companies are still doing this.”

Once Alice developed anxiety and began having panic attacks, continuing her legal battle seemed impossible. She wanted to focus on parenthood and move on with her life. She also felt guilt at the financial pressure of litigation and the way it took over her relationships.

"I was worried every time I got a letter from the lawyer or the phone rang. My whole world revolved around this."

“I couldn't handle it anymore. I was panicking, I was worried every time I got a letter from the lawyer or the phone rang. My whole world revolved around this. It felt like the worst thing ever. It had spin-off effects on every aspect of my life.”

Sarah didn’t make it to her tribunal. After her protective family advised her not to put herself through the stress of taking on her employers, she accepted an initial compromise settlement negotiated by her mediator.

“At that time I [was] knackered,” she recounts of the period. “I [was] going through a massive emotional upheaval [with birth and new parenthood] and being told I should just start planning a more extended maternity leave.”

Both women went on to regret their settlement decisions. They found understanding from Pregnant Then Screwed, a website and campaigning group that provides moral and legal support for women who experience maternity discrimination. The anonymous testimonies on the site make for sobering reading, and show how many feel powerless in misogynistic work cultures. There is tale upon tale of pregnant women or mothers being demoted, having their pay cut, and being bullied out of a job.

Founder Jodi Brearley set up the group after her own experience of discrimination. Though it is illegal to discriminate against pregnant women and mothers, she believes that more needs to be done. In October, she presented five demands to Parliament through Pregnant Then Screwed-organized protests in London, Manchester, Belfast, Cardiff, Newcastle and Glasgow. The demands included giving self-employed women access to statutory shared parental pay and increasing company transparency around flexible working requests.

Jackson says that legislative change alone is not enough—archaic attitudes towards pregnant women and working moms also need to shift. She explains that while both companies and individuals are capable of perpetuating a misogynistic work culture, it is the company’s responsibility to stamp out prejudice.

“There should be no tolerance of managers who discriminate, they should be fired, and they need to be rooted out. I think it has to really be led from the top in organizations. It has to be eliminated.”