This Woman’s Work

Two days after Joeli Brearley told her employer that she was pregnant with her first child, she was sacked. She was four months pregnant and unemployed with bills to pay.

In 2015, she set up Pregnant Then Screwed as a place to share stories of discrimination anonymously. “It mushroomed,” she said.

Determined to end the systematic, cultural and institutional discrimination faced by pregnant and working mums, today it provides a free legal advice line for any mother experiencing discrimination at work, manned by HR professionals and employment lawyers. It also runs a peer-to-peer support programme around tribunals, and tirelessly campaigns to change legislation to remove ‘the motherhood penalty’.

Prior to Covid-19, they supported 900 women a year on the free legal advice line, 50 on the tribunal programme, engaging hundreds at its annual events, with a huge social media following of 80,000. It consulted on major contracts with the Equality and Human Rights Commission and others.

A 2016 report showed 54,000 women a year are pushed out of work due to pregnancy and taking maternity, with 77% of working mums facing some form of discrimination in the workplace.

Joeli said: “The problem before Covid-19 was getting incrementally worse, and since Covid-19, it’s exploded.”

Redundancy and child-care duties as schools and nurseries closed have weighed heavier on mothers.

“Mothers were doing far more of the childcare and domestic unpaid labour. Research found for every one hour of uninterrupted work, men were doing three hours of uninterrupted work.”

The additional pressures resulted in more mums taking sick leave or holiday.

“40% of employers are looking at redundancies,” Joeli said. “And the two criteria are performance and attendance, which of course women through no fault of their own were not as good at.”

“Data from the Office of National Statistics showed that redundancies for men increased by 23% in the three months up to July – for women that figure was a whopping 79%. Our own research found 15% of mothers were expecting to be made, or already had been made, redundant. Half of them said the reason was because of childcare issues.”

Their advice line saw a 450% increase in calls since Covid-19 and has maintained at that level with a vast increase in women needing support.

Key Fund gave them a £15k grant from the Social Enterprise Support Fund, made possible thanks to The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK.

Just two women run Pregnant and Screwed, but they’ve grown the volunteers manning the advice services to 45 to cope.

“This is only the beginning; it’s going to get worse. With schools sending children home with a Covid case in their bubble, mothers are having to step back from work and are not being paid to care for their children. They’re drifting into poverty, particularly single mums as they don’t have that buffer to cope with it.”

Alongside the advice lines, the team are prioritising health and safety in the workplace for pregnant women.

“There’s no official guidance for pregnant women in the pandemic, so you have pregnant women working in the NHS, as carers, and having direct contact with Covid-19 patients without knowing their legal rights. Women are also being told to take early maternity leave or holiday pay if they express fears; they’re being forced to making this choice between their earning potential, keeping a roof over their heads and the safety of themselves and their baby.”

They produced a template letter for women to download for their employers that set out the law, so a pregnant woman knew her legal rights around health and safety. It has been downloaded 1100 times. “We had so many women who said that it saved their bacon.”

The team has also been successful after campaigning over informal childcare.

“Government bought in Tier 2 and 3 measures that meant people couldn’t use informal childcare from family or friends. We lobbied on that and were successful for it to be included to allow informal childcare no matter what Tier you live in so the parent can go to work.”

They are also campaigning on self-employed income support in the pandemic for women whose normal salary was depleted due to being on maternity during lockdown. Joeli is also focussing on the child care sector, which she fears is on the brink of collapse confounded by years of underfunding.

“The UK has the second most expensive child care service in the world, so even if you can get the childcare, being able to afford it is another issue.”

The emergency grant money will help the team take more if its services online. Physical workshops will be replaced with virtual ones, helping women get back on their feet after redundancy with virtual workshops on confidence, writing a CV, interview techniques, well-being, and legal rights. They expect to support around 1,500 women.

“We’re fire-fighting at the minute,” Joeli said. “The grant is enormous. We’re a tiny organisation so it’s a lot of money to us and will make a huge difference. It means we’ll be able to do these workshops that will give women the tools and the confidence they need to find new work, to be able to put food on the table in their families. When you get made redundant it’s just horrific and you can easily sink not just financially but mentally, so we know the work that we do makes a massive difference.”

For more information on Pregnant then Screwed visit their website