• Mother's Work 03 March 2018 | View comments

  • Before I had my son, I’d not heard of the term ‘pregnancy and maternity discrimination’. Then I watched a BBC report on the epidemic of women losing their jobs once they decide to try for a family. This chimed with what a close friend was going through. As I worked my way around Edinburgh’s Bookbug sessions and baby classes, I began to drop the topic into conversation. Within six months more than twenty women had confided in me that they too were being pushed out of their place of work. 

    They are not alone. A report from EHRC in 2016 found that 54,000 women each year lose their job because they are pregnant or because they have children. Mothers are often made redundant or their role changes (in terms of responsibility or pay grade) while they are on maternity leave, but increasingly the discrimination is more difficult to prove.

    Women who have enjoyed positive relationships with their employer are suddenly removed from projects, undermined in front of their colleagues, told they are not allowed to go to midwife appointments. They are worn down, made to feel useless at a time when they are at their most vulnerable, and told to put up or shut up.

    This is the best kept secret of motherhood. We are told repeatedly that we’ll lose our sleep, our spare time, our minds (don’t get me started on the detrimental impact of the term ‘baby brain’ on women in the workplace) but were you told - in explicit terms - that you could lose your job? Didn’t think so. Women often end up being paid thousands of pounds less in their next job after an experience of maternity discrimination. And we wonder why the gender pay gap still exists.

    In 2016 I tweeted asking for women who have experienced this type of bullying to email me and within ten minutes I had the accounts of six women sitting in my inbox, four from here in Edinburgh. I worked with the women to develop a case study interview where I invite women to talk through their experience, starting at six months before they became a mother.

    Eighteen months and over 100 interviews later I can report that pregnancy and maternity discrimination is rife in Edinburgh. If it’s not happening to you, it’s definitely happening to someone you know. The majority are women who are pregnant or who have recently given birth, but I have also spoken with women going through IVF and adoption. Women who have miscarried or have been through a stillbirth have been treated appallingly, too.

    Not only is this illegal, a grave injustice to the capable women in question and often irreparably damaging to both career and confidence, but we have to question what this is doing to the workplace overall. It’s little wonder that despite women making up 51% of the population, we are a long way off reaching gender equality in most sectors.

    There is a huge variety in the backgrounds and incomes of the women I speak with, but one thing is clear to me. In every single situation, there are key points in her pregnancy where a) a woman is at her most vulnerable to discrimination and b) most likely to walk away from her job without making a complaint. I’ve mapped these and I am committed to fighting for changes to be made - where necessary to the law - so that women have the protections that they deserve.

    There are instances where I have interviewed several women from the same organisation. As disturbing as it is to know that in some Edinburgh institutions workplace bullying towards mothers is systemic, it also means that I can visit the employer in question to try to work with them on making changes whilst protecting the identities of the women I have spoken with. The benefits of this service are yet to be appreciated by the bosses that I meet, but there is a definite change in the air.

    Of course, the shift that is coming is driven by the bullied, not the bullies. Women have secrets that they are no longer willing to keep. The #MeToo movement has gained momentum, and it seems that 2018 is the year for #timesup. Time’s up, indeed.

    Through my project, Mother’s Work, I am going to continue to represent women who have experienced pregnancy or maternity discrimination. I am planning a series of events in Edinburgh, pushing this issue with Scottish media and working with politicians to create change. Please get in touch via my website or Facebook to register for information. Every interview and conversation I have is in the strictest of confidence. 

    By Emma Walker @MothersWorkUK

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