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Lisa Williams talks to Joeli Brearley, the woman campaigning against maternity discrimination

Joeli Brearley was sacked by voicemail the day after she told her employer she was pregnant. She set up Pregnant Then Screwed, which started life as an online forum for women to share their stories of maternity discrimination anonymously, but which has since evolved to a campaigning body for maternity rights, offering a free legal helpline and peer-to-peer support. They have been lobbying the government to improve maternity rights, and a recent Early Day Motion to increase the time limit to raise a tribunal claim for a case of pregnancy and maternity discrimination from three months to six months has been signed by 99 MPs. On October 31 this year they are asking people to join them on their ‘March of the Mummies’ in London (and at sister events around the country) when they will be handing Afsal MP a list of five demands which he will take to the House of Commons. As the first in a series on maternity discrimination, Lisa Williams spoke to Joeli about why she’s fighting and what she believes the underlying causes of this discrimination are.

Can you tell me more about March of the Mummies?

It will start at Trafalgar Square at 12 midday. Caroline Lucas, Helen Skelton the TV presenter, Anna Whitehouse (Mother Pukka) are among the speakers, and we will walk from Trafalgar Square to Parliament Square, with everyone hopefully dressed as mummies (as in the Halloween kind). It will be Halloween, but it’s to reflect the archaic practices at work now. We will give Afzal Khan five demands which he will present to the House of Commons. You can also sign it here.

Have you found many politicians to be actually helpful, or have they just been paying lip service to your campaign?

We’ve had fantastic support from Labour, Lib Dem and SNP MPs including Angela Raynor, Jess Phillips, Alison Thewlis and Kate Green. Maria Miller, the chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, put forward some recommendations which align with some of ours, but apart from that we’ve had very little direct support from the Conservative party. We are hoping to change that. 

Do they come back to you with objections or are they ignoring you?

They have been ignoring me, hoping I will go away. There was a report done about maternity discrimination done by the Equality and Human Rights Commision, about how huge and enormous the problem is, which made recommendations for change, and the government had to respond to those and with each one they said either they didn’t believe that would change anything, that there was no proof it was a problem, or that it would be too complicated to implement. The only recommendation they paid any attention to was enhancing protection for women facing redundancy. They said they would look at that but they decided they weren’t going to do ahead, so since that report they’ve done nothing, and 72,000 people have now lost their jobs.

How do you keep yourself motivated when faced with these attitudes?

I find it really upsetting and incredibly frustrating but it doesn’t dampen my spirits, it does quite the opposite, it just makes me more determined that they’ll listen, which is why we’re taking to the streets to say we’re not going away. What energises me is the people who I encounter every day who face discrimination. We originally set it up as a database for women to share their stories of discrimination, and every single woman’s story comes directly to me, so I can make they won’t get themselves in trouble before we publish. I’ve spoken to many women who have never recovered from this happening to them: they’ve lost their homes, their relationships with their children and their partner has been damaged because of what’s happened, and they’ve been treated so appallingly that they can’t recover. Getting those stories is really upsetting, it makes you angry but then knowing that we’re helping people is really energising.

Did you have any idea of the extent of the problem when you set it up?

I set it up because it happened to me and, when I started talking to other women at parent groups, I discovered that it wasn’t an accident, most people had experienced some level of discrimination, it became clear that it had been swept under the carpet. The report from the EHRC really shone a light on it, that’s when we had the real specifics but the statistics didn’t shock me, they were what I expected to see because by that point I had been speaking to people for over a year.

Can you give us some examples of discrimination you’ve come across during your research?

There was a woman who had been working for a company for three years, her boss told her she was due a promotion but she had to go through an interview process, just a formality. She then told him she was pregnant, and he came back to her saying he had discussed things with his wife and they’d decided her priorities had changed so she couldn’t be promoted. He didn’t mean it maliciously, he just thought, ‘She’s going to be mum, she’s going to be at home fluffing up cushions’. We had another woman who had been working for a company, she told them she was pregnant, then she was bullied and harassed and, when she was in the neonatal unit with her baby, her boss called and made her redundant.

What is the real reason behind this discrimination, in your opinion?

The reason why it happens is quite nuanced but the key reason is entrenched gender stereotypes which we can’t seem to shake. We see women as soon as they get pregnant as mothers, it’s just ingrained in us. A lot of the time they don’t mean it maliciously, when they take clients off you, for example, they think they’re being helpful, when actually that’s going to stagnate your career. When you’re returning to work they think you’re going to be preoccupied and distracted. There was an American study which compared the CVs of mothers with other applicants, and the mothers were considered to be less competent and less committed, and deserving of 10k less in salary, and yet the only difference in their resumes was that they were mothers. When men become fathers they get pay rises and promotions. Until we can address those gender stereotypes and make people realise that it’s healthy to enable mothers to have successful careers, we’re never going to make things equal in the workplace. There are really practical issues like childcare: it’s too expensive to return to work. You also have horrible people who see you as a complete burden and they just want to get rid of you, and they know it’s illegal, so bullying and harassment tends to be their method. Then, with flexible working, people just work the standard 9-5.30pm day and why would they bother with the idea of trying to think differently?

What do you think of the recent government pledge to offer parents 30 hours a week of free childcare?

Nobody wins in childcare, the children don’t win, the staff don’t win. It got the government elected but they’re not thinking about the people on the front line of it: nursery doors are closing and it’s really sad. They should get rid of business rates for nurseries so they have fewer costs. We have done a campaign on childcare, using the manifesto set out by the Women’s Equality Party. It’s just about making sure nobody gets screwed. I was going to set up a co-working space, I did loads of work on it and the margins were ridiculously tight, there are so many expenses for a childcare provider. What frustrates me the most is the average childcare professional earns 13k a year, the average refuse collector collects 19k and they are less qualified. It shows how we value care, it’s a woman’s work, it’s not important.

How is the legal helpline funded?

People give their time for free. The only funding we have had was the £16,000 we raised through crowdfunding, and that goes really far, we don’t need much money.

What is the next step for PTS?

We’re going to do a big event in February in Manchester that’s going to be festival for working parents, they can come and find out any information they need to know, such as their legal entitlement, how to make flexible working requests, which employees are really flexible, what childcare options there are, what would work for you and how to get it, and so on. We’re also having some in-depth conversations with the EHRC about a large project which will work towards reducing maternity discrimination in Manchester and then, once we’ve done Manchester, we can learn from our process and try and do it elsewhere. We’re taking the matter into our own hands, as it were.

Are you hopeful for the future? Do you think the new generation has a different attitude towards gender roles?

I hope people feel much more empowered to challenge discriminatory behaviour. We have Mother Pukka’s Flex Appeal movement, and Digital Mums’s Work That Works campaign which are getting attention. Employers are going to start losing really valuable members of their team if this discrimination continues.

:: The main March of the Mummies rally and march will take place on Tuesday, 31 October in London, starting at Trafalgar Square at 12 noon. Sister rallies will take place in Belfast at the Town Hall; in Cardiff at the Aneurin Bevan statue on Queen Street; and in Glasgow at Glasgow Green at 12 noon. Find out more here.