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Joeli Brearley is the founder of charity and campaigning group, Pregnant then Screwed, which works to end the motherhood penalty and supports mothers who face discrimination. Our recent ‘In Conversation with: Joeli Brearley’ event covered the barriers and discrimination pregnant and working mothers experienced before the pandemic hit, and how those have changed or amplified during this time. She shared with employers best practice lessons, areas for consideration, and the strong business case for addressing these issues. Below we have summarised the key points raised in the discussion, alongside a list of key resources and the full video recording.


Understand the scale of the problem facing mothers in the workplace

Joeli started by speaking about her experience of maternity discrimination in the workplace – at 4 months pregnant she was fired suddenly over voicemail. Her employer was a children’s charity. Unfortunately, Joeli’s case is not a rare one: with the Equalities and Human Rights Commission estimating that 54,000 women a year are pushed out of work for being pregnant, and 77% of pregnant mothers face discrimination in the workplace.

In many cases, from the moment that an employee tells her employer about a pregnancy - she is seen as lacking commitment to her job, despite previous trajectories towards promotions. And once a woman has a child, she faces barriers to recruitment and fair salaries. This issue is so widespread that it even affects women without children – with many employers avoiding hiring women of childbearing age.


The impact of the pandemic

Covid-19 has created new challenges for working parents; with disruptions to schools and childcare facilities leading many parents to juggle childcare alongside full-time work. This disproportionately affects women – with the Institute of Fiscal Studies estimating that women were only doing 1 hour of uninterrupted paid work compared to men doing 3 hours, during the height of the pandemic. This has led to many mothers with depleted job performances, and with ongoing redundancies, this may be a determining factor to consider for many employers.

For those who continued to work throughout the pandemic, many employees are now working from home. Whilst in many ways, this can have positive benefits for those with caring responsibilities, there are also potential problems on the horizon. With rising levels of presenteeism and difficulty to maintain work-life balance, there are concerns moving forward for those who also have significant responsibilities at home.


What needs to change in the UK to tackle this

It was only in 1993 that all women were allowed to take maternity leave, and in 2006 that it was increased to a 52-week duration. Paternity leave is even newer, having only come into place in 2008. However, this legislation has not had enough of an impact on attitude change. It is still commonly accepted that women are a burden on their workplace if they’re pregnant, with 1 in 10 British people claiming that women should have no maternity rights whatsoever. However, if men decide to take leave from work to look after children, they also face discrimination as childcare is not culturally seen as a man’s obligation.

Better structures for parental leave are certainly needed – but above all what is needed is attitude and culture changes. Misconceptions regarding the ‘business burden’ of maternity leave neglect the fact that companies receive significant rebates from paid parental leave, whilst also neglecting the strong business case for offering this support.


What employers can do to address this issue

When many employers side-line expectant mothers for promotions or further responsibilities, this is perceived as the ‘right thing’, borne out of a concern for extra pressure the career advancement would create. However, this is often not the right way to go. Open and clear conversations with employees expecting children will help to determine goals moving forward, and will help to inform future decisions rather than basing these from assumptions.

Companies with balanced levels of gender diversity are known to be more profitable, with organisations where women hold executive roles receiving significant business benefits. However, if a company fails to look after women when they have a baby – the impact of this on retention, recruitment and overall business reputation will be vast.

When parents do return to work after a period of maternity leave, employers need to be considerate of the re-induction needed to be comfortable again. ‘Keeping in touch’ days throughout maternity leave, and mentor schemes with existing parents in the organisation, will help to make this transition smoother.

Underpinning all the decisions needed to make a workplace better for parents is planning. Understand the legal rights for parents at work, the criteria for shared parental leave and flexible working policies and how these can be explicitly written into job advertisements. Preparing for these scenarios will ensure that working parents or expectant parents can be successfully retained and supported throughout this process.