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“I was given 24 hours to resign”: the shocking truth behind women's experiences of maternity leave in Britain

maternity pregnant.jpg

The latest statistics reveal a worrying number of new mums face workplace discrimination – and even the prospect of losing their job. So we decided to ask you about your experiences – the good, the bad and the downright shocking.

Words: Jessica Powell and Georgie Lane-Godfrey

Photography: Liz Gregg

What do you think? Scroll down to share your experiences of maternity leave in the comments section below or join the discussion on social using the hashtag #maternityscandal

Whether or not to have children is probably the biggest decision you’ll ever make. Can you afford it? Is your relationship ready? Are you prepared to give up the life you know? However, one thing is sure: deciding to start a family shouldn’t have to mean jeopardising your career.

Sadly, though, for many women it can feel that way. While there have been some seemingly positive moves by employers to make becoming a parent easier recently, such as the announcement from Netflix that most of its employees can take “unlimited” maternity and paternity leave on full pay in the first year after their baby is born, the broader picture is unsettling. A new survey of more than 3,200 women by Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, when scaled up, suggests that 54,000 new mothers may be forced out of their jobs each year – dismissed, made redundant or treated so badly they felt they had to leave.

While the research suggests the majority of employers treat new mothers well, one in five experienced harassment or negative comments from their colleagues, employer or manager when pregnant or returning from maternity leave. The specifics are disappointing: 10% were discouraged from attending antenatal appointments; 7% said they were put under pressure to hand in their notice; and, when mothers were allowed to work flexibly, around 50% reported negative consequences, such as receiving fewer opportunities.

When we saw the stats, we were shocked and took to Twitter to ask you whether they rang true of your experiences. Lots of you tweeted us with our hashtag #pushedout, telling us about when you’d faced discrimination for choosing to have a baby. Even more came in over email. Your response made one thing clear: there’s a lot of anger out there.

“This is a huge problem that is seriously affecting women’s careers and confidence. I believe these statistics are just the tip of the iceberg,” says Joeli Brearley, who founded pregnantthenscrewed.com, a website where women can share stories of discrimination, after she was sacked while four months pregnant. It launched in March and has already received nearly 500 stories from women across the UK, ranging from bullying to redundancies.

Maternity leave

New research suggests 54,000 new mothers may be forced out of their jobs each year

These stories – and those of women we’ve spoken to – suggest discrimination is much more prevalent than official statistics imply because so many cases are settled discreetly or remain unproven. When women find themselves a victim of pregnancy or maternity discrimination it’s often hard, or impossible, to fight back. One major barrier is money. In 2013, the government brought in a fee of up to £1,200 to take a case to a tribunal – which you may have to pay whether you win or lose. The number of women lodging pregnancy discrimination cases promptly fell by 40%.

Another issue is timing, as you typically have to launch tribunal proceedings within three months of the incident of alleged discrimination. “Pregnant women and new mothers have significant demands on their time, finances and emotional resources,” notes Rosalind Bragg, director of Maternity Action, a charity that campaigns for parents’ rights. “We should be acting to prevent discrimination, not leaving it up to individual women to pursue a claim. The government needs to send a clear message to employers that a difficult economic environment does not justify unfair and unlawful treatment of pregnant women. Employment tribunal fees should be abolished.”

Plus, many victims stay silent for fear of being branded a ‘troublemaker’. So the unspoken impact of discrimination may be huge – and can affect women before they even think about starting a family. “One headhunter told me the majority of his clients do not want women put forward for interview if they are of child-bearing age,” notes Brearley. Perhaps more shockingly, the perpetrators of this discrimination aren’t just men – many women bully their female colleagues too.

“Realising you are not alone makes you feel empowered,” she adds. “Sharing stories of discrimination also helps expose this systemic issue.” That’s why we’re printing as many of your stories as we can pack in. Here’s what you had to say… 


“I was given 24 hours to resign” 

Hannah on  maternity leave

Hannah: "I consider myself a survivor but I was defeated by this"

Hannah, 43, is a mother of two and works as a copywriter

“While I was pregnant, I didn’t take a single sick day and often missed midwife appointments as I didn’t want to fall behind with work. When I was nine months pregnant I even stayed late to work on a pitch to make sure we won. I was dedicated and my manager appreciated me. While I was on maternity leave, my firm won a big industry award, so he gave me a bonus and verbally agreed to let me work one day a week at home when I returned. However, when I came back, I was told that this was no longer possible. ‘Perception is everything,’ he said darkly. Advertising has a culture where a lot of business is done after hours over a drink. But as a mum, I had to get my work done so I could leave at 5.30pm on the dot. It was like a walk of shame. I’d had a flawless review in November, but in January my two managers told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was sh*t, that I’d been warned about my performance plenty of times and that I had 24 hours to resign and sign an NDA [non-disclosure agreement]. I was completely and utterly shocked. I consulted a couple of lawyers, but they said the best I could do was haggle for a better pay-off. I was the breadwinner and couldn’t waste money on legal fees, so I signed the NDA. The worst part was that it stated that I had to say the reason I had left was because ‘I couldn’t cope with the role’. I did manage to get a new job with better pay and I also set up the Talented Ladies Club, a website which offers advice to working mums, but I still felt ashamed. I consider myself a survivor but I was defeated by this.” 


“I was expected to have an abortion”

Marie*, 40, is a mother of one and worked as a PA

“Two years ago, I was happily working 70 to 80-hour weeks. But when I fell pregnant, my relationship with my boss deteriorated rapidly. She began to find fault in all my work, bullied me about my ‘baby brain’ which she said rendered me ‘useless’, and even went as far as to tell me I was expected to have an abortion. Frankly, she was furious that I would have the ‘audacity’ to get pregnant while working for her. I would be reduced to tears on a daily basis and the stress got so bad that my GP signed me off work for three weeks. I was frightened, vulnerable and utterly miserable. Thankfully my baby arrived healthy, but when I emailed my boss to tell her, I never got a reply. When I tried to return to my job nine months later, it was made clear that I wasn’t welcome, so I hired a solicitor. Fortunately I’d kept my emails and a diary of how she’d treated me. However, the case wouldn’t be accepted in a tribunal because I hadn’t reported it within three months [see box for details], so we settled out of court. I’m lucky I came out of it unscathed, but I wish I’d known about that deadline before.”


“My boss assumes pregnant women can’t cope”

Gabriella*, 27, PA

“As soon as one of my colleagues told our boss she was pregnant, his whole demeanour changed. He became very passive-aggressive and began giving me more and more of her workload because he thought she ‘couldn’t handle it’. This was made even more ridiculous by the fact that she was complaining about being bored with so little work to do. When my colleague decided to get a job closer to where she lived instead of coming back to work after her maternity leave, our boss’s reaction was, ‘Well, that was to be expected.’ I got engaged at the beginning of the year and he has already started making comments about me leaving to have a baby. I’m not planning to have a baby any time soon but feel I shouldn’t have to explain that to him.” 


“My engagement ring puts future employers off ”

Rebecca*, 33, works in marketing

 “I’m currently trying to transition from a contractor to a permanent employee, but there’s one thing holding me back – the shiny engagement ring on my finger. I’ve lost count of how many interviews I’ve sat through where potential employers have asked me how I intend to ‘manage my work/life balance once I’m married’. They’re just tip-toeing around the question they really want to ask: ‘Are you going to have children?’ It’s obvious employers don’t want to hire women who are in their 30s out of fear they’ll disappear on maternity leave. I work just as hard as my male colleagues so I want to be treated equally. I’m being pushed out before I’ve even had the chance to push out a baby into this world! It’s a losing battle.” 


“There was no option but to take redundancy”

Vicky*, 37, is a mother of one and works as a chartered accountant

“The charity I worked for was great when I told them I was pregnant. They sent me a beautiful congratulations gift and I took a full year off, with no pressure to rush back. However, when I returned, I found my job had been divided between other members of staff. I was left with more junior tasks that were essentially padding to fill my time, which was incredibly frustrating. When I asked my manager for my old job back, he told me that after my replacement had left, the team had absorbed my work, and that the new situation was working well. Redundancy was inevitable. I was given the option of taking a new lesser position, but I didn’t want to waste my brains on a role that didn’t challenge me. The experience did leave a scar.” 


“It’s hard to make a stand when you need a salary”

Natalie*, 33, works as a PA

“I’ve found myself having to lie in job interviews lately. In the last six months I’ve had three interviewers come straight out and say, ‘Do you have children? Do you want them in future?’ I have to say no, otherwise it’ll put me on the back foot. The fact they’re asking must mean they think it would count against me if I did want a family. It’s the right answer in an interview but not morally. In truth, having children is on my mind. But a man would never face those questions. I wish I could stand up for myself, but it’s hard to be a pioneer when you have to pay a mortgage. I’m still looking for a job. I know there are firms out there that don’t discriminate, but finding them is like finding a needle in a haystack.”


“Company policy was turned against me”

Alisha*, 37, is a mother of one and works in insurance

“You’d think that being the only woman in an all-male team would make your female boss all the more supportive of you when you fell pregnant, wouldn’t you? I couldn’t have been more wrong. When my baby was born 13 weeks prematurely, my boss could not have been less interested. In fact, when I returned to work, she went out of her way to show I wouldn’t get any special treatment, changing the holiday policy so that I couldn’t take the days I’d accrued.”


“Our CEO accuses women of ‘playing the maternity system’”

Caroline*, 25, works in publishing

“I work at a magazine that is largely staffed by women, and we had three employees announce pregnancies in quick succession last year. The first woman is unsure whether she can afford to return as it will cost her entire salary to keep her twins in childcare. The second is currently in a legal battle with our MD who tried to fire her while she was on maternity leave. She handed in her notice, raised a grievance and the case is now going to tribunal. The third woman is coming back to work, but our female CEO has openly said that, ‘She’s only going to come back for as long as it takes for her to play the maternity system. She’ll go once she knows she doesn't have to repay the money.’ Having seen all this, I have no intention of getting pregnant while working in this office.”


“Let’s end the double standards”

Sophia*, 37, is a mother of two and works as a solicitor

“I wish childcare was talked about as a parents’ issue, not a woman’s. There’s a view that if you hire a woman of a certain age she might leave to have a baby, but it should be no different to hiring a 30-something man. I used to work in the City and I felt once I had kids, I was subtly shouldered out of things. It was always, ‘You won’t want to come for drinks because you’ll want to see the kids.’ But if it was a chance to meet clients, I wanted to be there. People assume that as a mother you can’t be ambitious any more, whereas a man will be more ambitious when he has a family because he has to ‘provide’. There’s a double standard in that any man who does a basic level of parenting, such as leaving early because a child is sick, is a Super Dad, but for a woman, the same things lead to comments about commitment.”


“I was badgered about how long I was going to take off”

Samantha*, 29, is a mother of one and works as a PA

“While my managers seemed happy for me when I announced I was pregnant, there was definitely an edge to their congratulations. As my due date drew nearer, every week they would ask me how long I thought I was going to take off. It was my first baby, so I had absolutely no idea and their constant questions made me feel like I was being hounded. My baby is seven weeks old now and I’m planning to take the full year off, despite my employer ‘joking’ that I could come back to work in September.”


“I had a four-month old baby and no job to go back to”

Susan*, 52, is a mother of two and works in the public sector

“When I saw the recent news about employers’ discrimination against new mums, it brought back my own terrible experience of being made redundant while I was on maternity leave 18 years ago. My baby was only about four months old when I was told I was losing my job. They’d reorganised the company as soon as I’d gone on leave; I later found out that it was precipitated by the fact that I was away on maternity leave. It was convenient to choose me for redundancy because I wasn’t there to put my case forward, to argue back. Suddenly I had a lovely baby but I was panicking about how I could pay the mortgage. I got legal advice and was told I had a good case for discrimination but the industry I work in is small and I knew it would be difficult for me to take them to a tribunal and then get more work. So I pushed for a good settlement and I didn’t take any further action. I had really hoped things had moved on. But I don’t think they have. People still have this attitude that women can’t hold down a senior job and have a baby.”


“My boss erupted over my colleague’s pregnancy”

Maya*, 27, works in publishing

“My last job was at a small publishing house which had only been running for a few years. Most of the original team were contractors, but several of them had asked to be given permanent contracts like the newer members of staff. Three months after one woman had been given hers, she announced that she was pregnant. The director was livid. The whole office overheard him screaming that ‘she was a c*** for doing this to him’, as now he had to pay her maternity pay. It was disgusting – she’d been there from the beginning and had worked hard to help him build his company into what it is today. Needless to say, I didn’t stay there much longer.”


“I was branded rusty after maternity leave”

Catherine on maternity leave

Catherine was denied flexible working hours and then made redundant

Catherine, 28, is a mother of two and worked in administration

 “It was heartbreaking having my request for flexible working turned down by my employer when I was on maternity leave with my first baby. There wasn’t even a discussion – it was a flat no. Then, when I was due back, I got a call saying not to bother coming in – I was to have a meeting with HR instead. They explained they were closing my department and either my colleague or I would be made redundant. They made it quite clear that I would lose the competition because I would be ‘rusty’, as I hadn’t been there for 10 months. I didn’t stand up to them. I just took redundancy. I felt like I’d been penalised for having a baby, for having a life.” 


“My promised promotion evaporated”

 Lucy*, 30, is a mother of two and works in administration

“Back in 2010, work was going well and I’d been promised a better position in the company. But once I announced that I was pregnant, the new role miraculously disappeared and was never heard of again. I was overlooked for places on work excursions in favour of less experienced members of staff and I began to feel excluded. It felt like all my opportunities were over just because I’d decided to have a baby. The lowest point came when I was eight months pregnant: a colleague said, ‘For god’s sake, why are you so miserable?’ I was so shocked I just got up and left. In the end, I decided to take my maternity leave a week early, using my physical discomfort as a cover for my emotional state. When I eventually went back to work, I was told that I couldn’t do my former role part-time, so I was moved to a different team. I was gutted but I tried to approach it with an open mind. Two years later, I got pregnant again. Just before I was due back I was made redundant. The company was downsizing but I was the only one let go out of our team of four. I can’t prove it, but I do feel like I lost my job because I had kids. A year on, I still get upset when I think about it.” 


“I wasn’t welcomed back as a mother”

Evie*, 32, is a mother of one and worked as a lawyer

“The first inkling I got that something was wrong was when my employer didn’t reply to my email announcing the birth of my baby. I finally received a letter just before Christmas. It effectively told me that I wasn’t welcome back and that we should begin negotiations for a suitable compensation figure. I was shocked, but luckily a good friend of mine is an expert in employment law. She told me that I could win a significant amount at a tribunal because numerous breaches of the law had occurred. Still, I decided just to settle out of court. I felt stressed and upset because, with a new baby, it was a stage in my life when I didn’t want a fight on my hands. When I read the recent report saying how many working mothers were being discriminated against, I was actually surprised that the figure wasn’t higher. In my NCT group, four out of the seven women had been forced out of their job one way or another, through inflexible hours or pay cuts, but I was the only one who sought legal counsel. I’m a lawyer but I still wasn’t aware of the full extent of my rights after the birth of my baby, so I can’t imagine how hard it must be for others.” 


“All the married women were made redundant”

Alexandra*, 36, is a mother of one and works in the media

“A few months after getting married, I was completely floored to be made redundant from my job as an editor. My first thought was, ‘I’m glad I’m not pregnant after all’. I’d stopped using contraception after my honeymoon. Three other redundancies were announced in our 50-strong office: all of us were female, in our 30s and had married earlier that year. When I pointed this out in a meeting with HR and our (female) CEO, the room went silent. ‘Are you saying I’m not a feminist?’ demanded my boss. It was a coincidence, apparently. As it turns out, two of my colleagues made redundant at the same time were newly pregnant and hadn’t yet announced their news; they got the statutory six months’ maternity pay of £500 a month. I discovered that I’d need to be with a new employer for over a year before getting minimal maternity leave. So I set up my own company and sucked up the rubbish statutory allowance. The silver lining is that my self-employed working hours are far more child-friendly.” 


“My promotion had a two year ‘baby clause’”

Amina*, 30, works in TV

“‘We’re pleased with everything you’ve done,’ my bosses said, ‘but we don’t want to give you this promotion if you’re going to have a baby in the next two years.’ The most shocking thing was that I wasn’t even upset – it’s just the norm in my department. I was still single then, but clearly they thought that because I’m a woman, I must be baby-mad. When I later got a boyfriend, they said, ‘We’re putting your fallopian tubes under lock and key.’ It was said in jest, but when one of my colleagues told her bosses she was pregnant, they said, ‘Congratulations, but don’t think there’ll be any of this part-time bullsh*t when you come back’. I’ve never complained because nothing would change and it would probably only be detrimental to my career.”


“I got subtly demoted”

Catherine*, 34, is a mother of two and works in HR

“When I returned to work after having my son, I wasn’t dismissed or made redundant but I was made to feel I had done something wrong. My terms and conditions were the same as before but a ‘reorganisation’ meant that the private office I had enjoyed had been allocated to someone else. Before I had been heading up a small independent team, but now I was sharing staff with other managers and, in effect, I was just assigning work. I knew I was being disadvantaged but it would have been very difficult to prove and would have resulted in bad feeling in an industry that I wanted to remain in for the foreseeable future. So I stayed where I was, worked twice as hard to regain my status, and within two years I was back to a similar position to the one I had left before my maternity leave. And then I had my second child…”


“I’m terrified a baby would mean losing my job”

Annabelle*, 32, works in civil engineering

“My industry is very male-dominated and a lot of my colleagues’ attitudes to working mothers are depressing. I remember being sat in one management meeting where someone commented on how quickly one female colleague had returned to work after maternity leave. My boss said, ‘Well, we have ways of firing people who take the full year.’ I know it was said tongue-in-cheek, but I was still shocked. It wasn’t an acceptable joke. My boss is a family man – I wonder how he’d feel if someone said that to his wife. I’d love to have children soon but now I’m terrified that if I go on maternity leave, I’ll run the risk of losing my job if I don’t come back as soon as possible.”


Getting it right

It’s not all bad news, as these positive stories about employers who do the right thing by their staff prove.

Anna on maternity leave

Anna got a promotion while on maternity leave

“I got a promotion on maternity leave”

Anna, 32, is a mother of one and works at King’s College London

“I was apprehensive about telling my manager I was pregnant as there aren’t many women with young children in our division. But she was fantastic, she even encouraged me to apply for a promotion while I was on leave, which I got. Crucially, she allows me to work flexi-time, without which it would be impossible for me to drop my son at nursery then commute to work. If it hadn’t been for her, I would never have been able to come back.” 


“I’ve found that my employers have been really flexible”

Salma, 30, is a mother of one and works in tax

“During my pregnancy, I suffered with really bad pain in my coccyx, which meant that sitting for prolonged periods was very uncomfortable. My employers were amazingly supportive – they encouraged me to see a physiotherapist and adjusted my workstation so that I could alternate between sitting and standing, which was such a great help. They would also let me leave early so that I could avoid the rush hour commute home. I’d initially said that I’d take six months’ maternity leave, but when it came to it I wasn’t ready to return. Again, they were incredibly understanding. I’ll definitely go back, not only because they pay a ‘Returner’s Bonus’ to mums who do, but also because they have made me feel so valued. I feel like I could have a career with real longevity there because they’re so flexible. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to stick around.”


“It was easy to slip back in to work after maternity leave”

Niamh*, 26, is a mother of one and works in dental health

“When I came back from maternity leave, I could barely remember how to do my job. But my bosses eased me in. They didn’t expect me to be able to do everything I had done before straight away. I also applied to cut down my hours to four days a week. At first I was cautious because the place I work at can be really busy but there were no arguments or lengthy negotiations – they agreed straight away. It made the world of difference because my partner was studying at university at the time and the day I had asked not to work was a key day he needed to be at uni. He probably wouldn’t have been able to complete his course if he’d had to look after our daughter. Plus, it meant I got to have more time with her, which I really cherished.”


“I was given coaching to make the return to work easier”

Robyn, 30, is a mother of one and works in property

“When I found out I was pregnant, one of my main concerns was, ‘What will work say?’ I’d recently been put forward for a promotion. When they offered me the role, I told them I was expecting – I wanted to be honest. They were nothing but supportive, offering six months’ full pay and maternity coaching to learn how to balance work with being a mother. When I did come back I was able to pick up right where I left off.”


Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination

Know your rights with our guide to handling discrimination at work

Pregnancy and maternity leave

 The law, as set out in the Equality Act 2010, says that it’s discrimination to treat a woman unfavourably – for example, not giving her a promotion – because she’s pregnant or has recently given birth. This protection lasts from when you become pregnant to the end of your maternity leave. If you’re treated unfavourably outside of this time frame, you may still have a case for sex discrimination. “Many employers are poorly informed about women’s rights during pregnancy and maternity leave, so it’s important that women get clued up about their employers’ obligations themselves,” says Rosalind Bragg, director of parents’ charity Maternity Action. If you think you have a discrimination claim, here’s Bragg’s guide to the steps you can take:

Gather evidence

“Keep a record of any conversations you have during your pregnancy and maternity leave with your employer, as it can be used as evidence,” says Bragg. “Email records are good – so confirm conversations by email where possible. A running handwritten diary of events is another useful option.”

Start gently

“A lot of problems can be resolved with an informal conversation with your manager or human resources department,” says Bragg. “It’s also the best way to maintain good relationships with your employer, so try this approach first.”

Make it formal

“If you don’t get a satisfactory response after talking it through, the next step is to make a formal, written complaint. Every company will have a grievance procedure, which should be set out in your contract,” explains Bragg. “At this stage it’s a good idea to seek advice on whether you have a case and how best to present it. If you have one, contact your union, check if legal advice is covered by your home insurance, or call Maternity Action or the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), a statutory body that provides free advice on employment law.” (For numbers see below.)

Take legal action

“If you’re unhappy with the result, you can go to ACAS for Early Conciliation, which is free. They work as an impartial go-between, aiming to help you reach a satisfactory agreement without the case going further. It’s advisable to seek legal advice at this stage, especially if your case is complex,” says Bragg. “Only once you have tried this and found it unsuccessful, are you able to take the case to a tribunal [which can cost up to £1,200]. To do this, you must submit a claim form at employmenttribunals.gov.uk. You have to start proceedings with ACAS within three months of the alleged discrimination. If the tribunal finds in your favour, the compensation you get will generally relate to your level of pay and the severity of the case.”

 To find out more about your maternity rights and for further advice contact Maternity Action; maternityaction.org.uk; 0845 600 85 33; Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS); acas. org.uk; 0300 123 1100; Citizens Advice Bureau; citizensadvice.org.uk; 03444 111 444

*All names changed to protect the careers of the women involved

What do you think? Scroll down to share your experiences of maternity leave in the comments section below or join the discussion on social using the hashtag #maternityscandal

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