Every year in the UK, 54,000 women lose their jobs for the simple crime of getting pregnant. Here, Stylist hears from five women who faced maternity and pregnancy discrimination at their places of work – and were forced to sign NDAs to cover up the unjust treatment.
Imagine working for a company for 12 years, only to be forced out of your job a few weeks after you return from maternity leave. Imagine the male replacement who covered for your role while you were on maternity leave then taking up your position full time.
Perhaps worst of all, imagine your company forcing you to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that prohibits you from taking legal action against them for such unjust behaviour, just so you can get a few months pay in exchange for being forced out.
This is what happened to Lydia*, a woman who worked in HR in London. The year is 2019, and yet women are still being forced to choose between a career and motherhood. Why?
This is the question being asked by Pregnant Then Screwed, a campaign group working to fight the discrimination faced by so many working mothers.
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The figures around this discrimination are shocking. Every year, 54,000 women lose their jobs for the crime of getting pregnant, while 390,000 working mums experience negative and potentially discriminatory treatment at work. Shockingly, these numbers have doubled in a decade.
NDAs are a huge part of this problem, with unknown numbers of women being forced to sign an NDA that silences them from speaking out about the unjust treatment they receive. It is perhaps unsurprising that less than 1% of victims take legal action against a discriminatory employer – in many cases, they simply can’t.
A survey of 260 women who had been forced to sign an NDA after facing pregnancy or maternity discrimination found that 91% of these women felt signing an NDA was their only option.
The research, from Pregnant Then Screwed, also found that 70% of these women believed the experience had a negative impact on their mental health.
“The real issue for these women is that they sign an NDA to make it all go away; they want it to be over so that they can concentrate on new motherhood,” Joeli Brearley, the founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, tells Stylist. “But, what they come to realise is that signing an NDA doesn’t make it all go away. To the contrary, for many women, it means they are never able to deal with it.
“The trauma of the discrimination hangs over them like a dark cloud affecting their relationships, their career and their confidence. It’s a dirty secret they are forced to keep as though they have done something wrong, and that can play havoc with your mental health.
“Meanwhile, the employer transfers the cash, signs on the dotted line, and probably never gives it a second thought.”
Pregnant Then Screwed have now launched a petition, calling on the government to implement a central monitoring body for NDAs.
Read on for some shocking stories from women who have experienced this discrimination first hand.
“I was forced into a false redundancy, and a man promptly took over my role”: Rebecca*, worked in insurance
I signed an NDA after I was made “redundant” while six months pregnant. It was a false redundancy – they made my role redundant while creating a very slightly different new role. I was told I could apply for it but that I’d already been assessed internally and deemed unsuitable. They promptly employed a man who started a month after I left (and was likely already in the pipeline).
I was subject to constant sexual innuendo, bullying, harassment and was even tapped on the ass, in the office, by my manager. I sought independent legal advice for the redundancy and was told it would be a long, drawn-out process that might not result in an award much more than what was being offered to me as a settlement. So I signed the agreement and left. It massively affected my self-worth, confidence and faith in the corporate world.
“I needed the money, so I signed the NDA”: Jess*, worked in advertising
I negotiated a three-day working week for my return, which was as rare as hens’ teeth. I endured sexist comments such as “don’t you want to stay at home with the baby?” My job involved international travel and I asked for a six-month reprieve from this as I was breastfeeding and my baby was still too young to be away from me. The company said I had to travel, and as a three-day working week was so rare I decided to take this on the chin, and reluctantly started weaning off the boob.
One day I opened the door to a hand-delivered letter, stating that the company was going through business challenges (despite profitability). I had to accept my old role, and the part-time role was no longer valid. After much to-ing and fro-ing over threats of the employment tribunal for constructive dismissal and maternity discrimination, I accepted a settlement. One condition was to sign an NDA. I needed the money, so I signed it.
“I was diagnosed and treated for PTSD caused by maternity discrimination”: Neha*, worked in online retail (commercial)
In September 2017, I was overjoyed to discover I was pregnant. My husband and I had decided to delay trying for a baby so that we could ensure I would qualify for the three months’ full pay maternity leave that was supposedly ‘offered’ by my employer. Given that we were older, I’d been worried about how easily we would be able to conceive and had expected it to take some time. So when it happened quite quickly, we were surprised, but obviously excited.
Up until that point, I had been enjoying my role with (ironically) a well-known ‘wellbeing’ brand. It was high pressured, challenging and often stressful, but generally I had been achieving and receiving positive feedback. I believed I had a great relationship with my manager.
I took the decision to tell my manager that I was pregnant early on, firstly because I had been working very long hours and needed to address this from a health perspective, but secondly because I mistakenly believed we had a strong level of trust and loyalty, and I wanted to do the right thing for the business.
She did not react as I had hoped. Firstly, she tried to tell me that I wouldn’t qualify for any maternity pay (later confirmed to be incorrect information; I would in fact have qualified as I had previously calculated). She then went on to question why I was telling the company so early as “many pregnancies fail in the first 12 weeks”. I came out of the meeting feeling shocked, confused and anxious.
Over the next few days, she behaved very strangely towards me. We had a number of difficult meetings where she seemed to be doing her best to paint me in a very negative light. I also noticed an increase in closed-door meetings with the owners of the business. My anxiety was increasing.
I began to have some bleeding and ended up in the early pregnancy unit at the hospital for some scans. We were told that the viability of the pregnancy was unclear and that we would have to wait another week to be re-scanned. I felt numb. Was I losing my baby? Could it have been brought on by the stress at work?
The following morning, I was asked to come into a meeting room, where I was met by my boss alongside the company MD. They handed me an envelope. “I think we all know this isn’t working,” my boss said. My jaw hit the floor. I was told I had two options: to accept the offer contained in the envelope (along with an NDA) or face formal disciplinary action for (entirely fabricated) poor work performance. Tears began to stream down my face. I staggered to my desk to collect my things, and left the building. The team ran out to ask me what had happened and try to comfort me, but they were called back to their desks and told to leave me alone. I still have no idea how I managed to drive home in the state I was in. That night was a blur of trying to explain to my loved ones whilst trying to make sense of what had happened.
With the support of my husband and family, I reached out to a solicitor who immediately identified a strong case for discrimination, but advised me to delay any decision until the viability of my pregnancy could be confirmed. Meanwhile, I was advised on the risks and implications of pursuing the case to court. Though I felt strongly that I wanted to go through with it, my mental and physical health was suffering due to the stress of the situation, and I was on the verge of a mental breakdown.
Thankfully, my next scan confirmed my pregnancy and at that point, I was so relieved that I took the difficult decision not to progress with the case against my employer, but to use my energy to focus on my pregnancy, my health and achieving the best possible outcome to allow us to move forward.
My amazing solicitor did a great job of negotiating an increased payment as part of my settlement agreement. Though I still feel very angry that I have been unable to talk publicly due to the NDA, and the lack of consequences faced by my former employer, I took some comfort in the fact that the payment indicated acknowledgement of liability and at least we would have just enough money to allow me nine months off with my baby.
Earlier this year I was diagnosed and treated for PTSD caused by these experiences while pregnant, combined with a traumatic birth, followed by postnatal depression and anxiety. I strongly believe that the trauma I experienced led to difficulties adjusting to early motherhood. Thankfully, my treatment (EMDR therapy) was hugely successful. While still under treatment, I started a new full-time role and my new employer has been hugely supportive.
Though I’ll never forget the trauma of my experiences and I still feel pained by the lack of consequences to my former employer, I am moving forward. I am so grateful to be thriving at work, while being the best mum I can to my amazing little boy.
“After 10 years of service, I was told I had two weeks to leave”: Sam*, worked in technology
I worked in the head office of an international technology organisation for 10 years. In 2016, following a huge restructure, my role transitioned from the operational side of the business to the commercial side, and my role changed completely. I believed my old role was being made redundant but was told it wasn’t.
I was concerned that, as I was about to go on my second maternity leave, I would miss out on the training needed to carry out the new role effectively. Furthermore, during my 10 years working in the organisation, every time cuts were made, the commercial team was always affected. I felt there was a question mark over my job security.
About 10 months into my maternity leave, when I was finalising childcare arrangements, I sent an email to HR to confirm my return to work date. HR phoned me and asked for an off-the-record chat. I naively thought this was an informal, friendly chat – the last time I had spoken to this HR member was my first day back after my first maternity leave.
She had come to my office to apologise for her role in the rejection of a flexible working request which I appealed and won, and she ended up crying about it as she was pregnant herself and recognised how distressing I had found the situation and the way it was handled. I had no idea that ‘off-the-record’ meant I wouldn’t be able to reference the information she shared with me.
She told me that my role should have been made redundant when it transitioned to the commercial team and that the new role was 99% likely to be made redundant in the near future. I asked how, and she said the consultation period was about to start and that I could accept a settlement agreement or start the consultation period and risk getting only statutory redundancy. She said that she would email the agreement to me as soon as we ended our conversation, and that I had two weeks to accept it.
We were just about to go away for a week and my son’s third birthday fell in the second week. Our holiday was ruined and the time I should have spent focusing on my son’s birthday and looking after my baby was instead spent on the phone to ACAS and an employment solicitor, negotiating the terms of the settlement agreement. We went back and forth for weeks, and all the time I was told that the consultation period was imminent but that I would be told of any suitable alternative roles as and when they came up.
When I eventually signed the agreement and contacted friends and colleagues to tell them I would not be returning to work, I found out that a close colleague had just been placed in an identical role to my original, non-commercial role. I asked HR why I hadn’t been told about the non-commercial role and it turns out that in the three months it took to execute the agreement they had made no effort whatsoever to identify any suitable alternative roles. HR exploited the fact that I was on maternity leave and had no visibility over what was actually going on at work to make me think that my job was at risk when it wasn’t.
“I was forced out of my job, and the man who covered my maternity leave took my job”: Lydia*, worked in HR
I was at the company for over 12 years, working for a few different managers and working my way up, being promoted to a higher role every few years. I worked hard and it paid off. Over the 12 years, I consistently achieved performance scores and there was never a single issue relating to my performance or my work.
I had my first son and returned to work after 12 months, and everything was great. I was promoted again to a team leader role which I loved, albeit under a new manager.
I took maternity leave for a second time three years later and returned to work when my newborn was only six months old. Just five weeks later I was pulled into a meeting to discuss my performance and asked to complete an assessment to prove I was still suitable for the role.
I complained to HR and said I wanted to contest this request, and that I wanted to formally put my thoughts about the situation in writing. I was persuaded not to make this a written formal grievance and was instead offered a package to leave (three months’ notice and three months’ full pay). The company paid for my lawyer and I signed a contract to say I wouldn’t take any legal proceedings towards them in the future. I never had a leaving do or got to say goodbye to my colleagues.
The whole period was really upsetting. After giving over 12 years of service and working so hard to do a good job, I felt I was being pushed out because I didn’t fit with the corporate agenda anymore. I wasn’t ever given a chance to get back into my role after maternity leave. Funnily enough, I found out three months later that the male who covered my maternity leave was back in the role permanently. I still feel anger and upset that my career at this company was taken away from me. I now mainly look after our two children but do a freelance role one day a week which fits with the childcare nicely. I was in the City last week but I feel so sad when I revisit the area, instead of looking back on that part of my life with happiness I just feel upset and so angry.
*all names have been changed
If you, or someone you know, needs support or information about maternity or pregnancy discrimination at work, you can visit the Pregnant Then Screwed website here or call their free legal advice helpline on 0161 9305300.
Images: Getty, Unsplash
Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Commissioning Editor at Stylist. Follow her on Twitter