READING the email on her screen, mum-of-one Kate* felt like she’d been punched in the gut. “Graceless bitch,” it said. “Just get rid of her.”
Accidentally CCd into the email by one of her bosses, Kate was in the midst of a messy fight with her employer, after having been furloughed a week into the first lockdown then made redundant four weeks later.
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“I was stunned,” Kate says. “I couldn’t believe it – I was only seeking a fair settlement for being made redundant, which I believe happened because I’m a mum.”
Kate, 42, who lives with her partner and their three-year-old son in the north of England, was offered furlough from her job as an inclusion manager at a large corporate firm soon after coronavirus hit in March 2020.
“They said because I had a young son that I might appreciate going on furlough – but I explained that my partner and I were managing. I also had loads of work on, but they said it was being de-prioritised, then gave it all to a male colleague.”
Four weeks later, Kate was made redundant and, despite working at the firm for nearly two years, was excluded from the usual negotiation process where staff can re-apply for an equivalent position or challenge a decision.
“I was simply told: ‘There is no conversation and no point in you fighting your corner,’” says Kate, who believes the pandemic was “100%” used as an excuse to lay her off.
Kate’s experience of the “motherhood penalty” has become worryingly common since the outbreak of coronavirus.
A survey by the Trade Union Congress found one in four pregnant women and new mums experienced discrimination at work after the pandemic began.
Meanwhile, the Institute of Fiscal Studies reported in May 2020 that mums were 47% more likely than dads to have lost their job due to Covid-19, and 14% more likely to have been furloughed.
Calls to the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed have rocketed 450% during the crisis, with the organisation supporting 38,000 women in 2020 – compared to just 3,000 the year before.
Founder Joeli Brearley tells Fabulous: “Companies have used Covid as a cloak to cover their pre-existing bias towards mums and expectant women. Before the pandemic, it was estimated that 54,000 mothers lost their jobs in Britain every year.
"That situation has been magnified over the past 15 months, with many women juggling childcare and homeschooling with work – and it’s often been mums who’ve been picking up the slack to keep their family going. Then they’ve been the first to be discriminated against by employers.”
Kate finally received a redundancy payout of £10,000, after paying £650 for legal advice, but she endured weeks of wrangling – culminating in that email – before the settlement was reached. She was left unemployed for six months.
“My salary contributes to our mortgage and bills, and I was aware that my settlement wouldn’t last long,” she says.
“It was unbelievably stressful and I developed insomnia. I’d previously suffered postnatal depression and this brought it spiralling back. It left me feeling so demoralised, I could barely get out of bed.”
Kate believes there was always bias against her as a mum, even before the pandemic hit.
That situation has been magnified, with many women juggling childcare and homeschooling with work
“There was a lot of travel, and I had to fight to go on any trips. More junior people or dads got to go, and there was an attitude that it wasn’t right for a mother to go overseas for 10 days. Men outnumbered women in senior roles, and there was much sexist banter.”
Employment lawyer Danielle Ayres, who runs Pregnant Then Screwed’s free advice hotline, says the number of stories like Kate’s has become concerning.
“Women are now at a crisis point,” she says. “The gender pay gap has increased since the start of the pandemic because so many working mothers have lost their jobs or had to take reduced hours.”
Danielle explains that fewer than 1% of women seek legal action against employers, because of the high cost.
“Most can’t afford it, or can’t face going through the process. But instead, you could join a union or get free advice and support from ACAS or your local Citizens Advice Bureau,” she explains.
Men outnumbered women in senior roles, and there was much sexist banter.
While Covid has exacerbated the situation for women, sadly it’s nothing new. Aimee Sanderson, a mum of two, is still haunted by her experience of being dismissed while expecting her eldest child in December 2017.
The previous January, she’d been excited to start a new job as an account manager at digital marketing agency Bespoke, but problems began after she suffered a miscarriage at 10 weeks in April 2017.
“It happened at work, which made it even more traumatic. I went outside and rang my husband Dean in a state, then went straight home,” says Aimee, 28, from Preston.
“The doctor signed me off work for two weeks, but I only took about nine days. Close colleagues were supportive, but my boss said nothing, even though he knew I was going through a devastating time.”
In early June, Aimee discovered she was pregnant again. “Dean and I were thrilled, though nervous,” she remembers. Aimee told her boss 10 weeks into the pregnancy and his reaction stunned her.
“He said sarcastically: ‘That’s great news. I suppose you’ll be off sick again now,’” she recalls.
“I was so shocked, I didn’t know what to say. I thought he was joking at first, but he wasn’t. Shaken, I went on my lunch break and called Dean. He was angry, but told me to stay calm. We were wary of making a fuss so early in my pregnancy.”
'LETTING EVERYONE DOWN'
A week later, her boss hinted Aimee’s job could be at risk.
“He told me: ‘There are too many people in your team and not enough work. You know what that means, don’t you?’ Again, I was horrified, and didn’t know what to say. It was becoming obvious the intention was to get rid of me.”
That August, Aimee called in sick with a migraine. She says: “A female manager told me I was letting everyone down.”
That autumn, the discrimination increased. “I was excluded from meetings and appraisals, and told there was no point in attending because I was going on maternity leave, even though it was months away.
"My boss also made veiled threats, suggesting accounts I ran were no longer needed. It got so intense, I came home every night and cried my eyes out.”
Although Aimee wanted to quit, Dean, 36, was self-employed as a kitchen and bathroom installer, and they’d be reliant on Aimee’s maternity pay from January 2018.
But one morning in late October, she was ordered to collect her possessions and attend a meeting with her boss and two senior staff members.
“They said a client had complained and they were suspending me for gross misconduct while they investigated,” she remembers.
Aimee says the client was notoriously difficult, but her employer had never previously questioned her performance. She was suspended on full pay for six weeks.
“By December, I was seven months pregnant and so stressed I was struggling to function or sleep properly,” she says.
"When the investigation concluded, shortly before Christmas, she received a letter confirming her dismissal and the allegations of gross misconduct.
“It was horrible,” she recalls. “With our first baby coming, it should have been a lovely time, but it was fraught.”
Aimee hired a lawyer to take Bespoke to a tribunal, but it took a year for the case to come to court. In that time, her mental health deteriorated – especially as she was adapting to motherhood after Charlie was born in February 2018.
“I loved Charlie, but juggling a newborn with the stress of the case nearly broke me,” she says. The couple also faced financial pressure.
“Dean was working silly hours to pay the legal fees, bills and the mortgage, and we had to max out credit cards. I thought about calling it off, but Dean said if we gave up, they’d won,” she adds.
The tribunal took place in December 2018, with a second hearing in February 2019. “It was horrible to come face to face with my boss,” Aimee says. “He tried to stare me down, saying ridiculous things like I only got pregnant so I could sue him.”
The judges unanimously ruled in Aimee’s favour, agreeing that “her pregnancy or intended maternity leave was a material factor in the decision to dismiss her”, and ordered Bespoke to pay £25,000 compensation to cover the “financial, physical and emotional stress and pressure”.
Her legal fees had spiralled over the year preparing for the tribunal. “We were so relieved, but the payout only just covered legal costs. It wasn’t about money, though, it was the principle,” says Aimee, whose boss still refused to apologise.
A statement from Bespoke after the verdict read: “Being taken through the process was traumatic for our team and we are pleased it has concluded, although we are staggered by the final decision.”
Furlough is basically a waiting room for redundancy.
Joeli from Pregnant Then Screwed says: “When a woman tells an employer she’s pregnant, they often think: ‘I want you out.’ But they can’t make her redundant, so they use drip-drip bullying to try to ensure she resigns.”
Joeli, 42, was sacked by voicemail after telling her boss she was pregnant, in 2013. As her pregnancy was considered high-risk, she decided against taking legal action, but threw herself into campaigning after her baby was born.
She is concerned mothers and expectant mums have been bearing the brunt of Covid furlough schemes.
“Mothers have been using holiday and asking for more flexible hours due to additional childcare, so some employers see them as a burden,” she says. “Furlough is basically a waiting room for redundancy.”
With the furlough scheme ending in September, Joeli is gearing up for a fresh wave of discrimination cases.
“This will get worse before it gets better, with many more mums ignored and sidelined by the government,” she says.
Thankfully, Kate has found a new position at a female-friendly law firm, but for Aimee – who gave birth to daughter Daisy in March – the distress put her off returning to the workplace.
“Now I work with Dean running our kitchen and bathroom company,” she says. And despite the physical and emotional cost of her battle, she has no regrets.
“I’ve got the perfect family and a flourishing business, so it was worth it. But I should never have been put in that situation. For other working mums, if you know in your heart you’re being treated unfairly, stand up and fight for what you believe in.”
*Name has been changed
- Visit Pregnantthenscrewed.com, Gorvins.com, Charliedeaninteriors.com
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