After winning her case against Morrisons last year, Patterson has set up an advisory service for people facing discrimination, bullying, or other difficult situations at work.
Last year, Donna Patterson spent hours wading through a giant “data dump” that included emails, meeting minutes, organisational charts, spreadsheets, and handwritten notes. She was taking her employer, the supermarket chain Morrisons, to an employment tribunal for discrimination – and she was representing herself.
“I was just scouring through oceans and oceans of PDFs…my eyes hurt so much from all the reading I was doing,” she says.
Patterson made headlines last October when she won her case and was awarded a £60,000 payout. The case centred on her being assigned a full-time role upon returning to work from maternity leave, despite having a part-time contract and pay. Some newspapers dubbed her ‘the Erin Brockovich of Bradford’ and her story was inspiring for many working mothers.
Several pieces of research show that a high proportion of mothers experience workplace discrimination – but relatively few feel able to take action. Over three in four mothers (77%) have had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy, maternity leave, or upon returning to work, according to an EHRC survey in 2018. Almost half of women (42%) in these situations left their job without taking any action, a 2019 workingmums.co.uk survey found.
Patterson now hopes to use her experiences to help change this. She has recently set up Let’s Talk Work, an advisory service for people facing discrimination, bullying, or other difficult situations at work. She helps people to prepare for conversations with their bosses and to raise issues internally, and she also helps people to navigate the tribunal process if those conversations don’t work.
“What I’m trying to do is offload all the learnings that I gained over that period, so that people don’t have to start from scratch like I did,” Patterson says. She often found her journey to tribunal success very isolating as she beavered away on her own. It was hard not to doubt or second-guess herself.
A Resolution Foundation report last year suggests that less than 0.3% of women who face pregnancy or maternity discrimination at work take it to a tribunal. The report adds that the tribunal system “favours higher earners”, partly due to the cost of hiring a lawyer.
Patterson ended up representing herself due to “a process of elimination”. Her home insurance included some legal protection – but her insurers wouldn’t cover her case as they concluded she didn’t have a high enough chance of winning. She didn’t want to use a “no-win-no-fee” lawyer, as they tended to favour out-of-court settlements and non-disclosure agreements. And she couldn’t afford the £300 hourly rate of the other lawyers she found.
Pregnancy and maternity discrimination cases also have a tight deadline – tribunal claims must be submitted within three months of a discriminatory act taking place. For pregnant women and new mothers, this is a tall order during an intense period of their lives. Some campaigns have called for the deadline to be extended to six months.
There has been some recent progress on mothers’ workplace rights, with a new law expected to be passed in England, Wales and Scotland this year. This law would protect a woman from redundancy from the moment she tells her boss she is pregnant until her child is 18 months old, extending current protections by six months.
If people think they’re being discriminated against at work, Patterson’s advice is to document everything, read up on similar employment cases, and seek out organisations that can support you. She cites Pregnant Then Screwed, which runs a free helpline, and Valla, which offers a free platform for putting together tribunal claims. Workingmums.co.uk also has a panel of employment lawyers who offer free advice.
Patterson adds that reading up on your company’s HR policies is crucial – if an employer is falling short of its own rules, then an employee has a stronger case. “A lot of the time these organisations spend a fortune on all-singing, all-dancing employee policies,” she says. “But they don’t even follow them. The line managers don’t know about them or understand them.”
Patterson doesn’t romanticise representing herself – she sometimes spent four hours a day prepping for her case, and she couldn’t control when those busy spells came. But she feels proud of bringing about a change that will benefit other women. If she had settled and signed a non-disclosure agreement, she wouldn’t have been able to speak about her experiences.
“This isn’t for the faint of heart, this isn’t easy, “ she says of self-representation. “But what I say is that anyone who feels they have got it in them [to do it], should [do it], because we have a responsibility to do it on behalf of those who can’t.”