Joeli Brearley’s new book is a passionate call for changes in the way we work that give families greater choice about how they work and live and don’t penalise women.
When you look at all that Joeli Brearley has achieved since she set up the campaign organisation Pregnant Then Screwed, fired by anger over her own experience of pregnancy/maternity discrimination, it makes you wonder how she fits it all in. Now she has gone one step further and written a book which will certainly strike a strong chord with any woman who has found herself jobless, demoted below her skill level, being paid less than her experience warrants or feeling not good enough simply because she had the temerity to get pregnant.
Pregnant Then Screwed: The Truth about the Motherhood Penalty and How to Fix It is published this week, just in time for International Women’s Day. It begins with an acknowledgement of how hard modern-day motherhood is, in large part because of all the often conflicting expectations on mothers [and fathers] and the fact that work is so intense these days.
Unnecessary problems and barriers related to being a working parent, from expensive, inflexible childcare to outdated social attitudes to women, only add to that and make it more difficult for mothers to unleash their full potential. It’s a shocking waste as well as an outrageous injustice yet women are expected to roll over and accept it because they are viewed as some sort of drain on society when the opposite is so clearly the case, as the legions of women who have kept work and home life functioning through Covid has shown.
Brearley’s book begins with an interview where she was told that she is perhaps making a fuss about nothing because mothers choose to opt out of work or reduce their hours. Brearley points out that choice is an interesting concept because, if you don’t have adequate childcare or flexible working, are made to feel you are not committed or are pushed out of your job, what does choice actually mean? She wants to see more genuine choice so that parents have a range of options which suit their individual circumstances. That extends to dads who may be discouraged from working flexibly or taking leave or are offered parental leave options which just don’t work financially or practically.
Brearley outlines her own experience of having her contract terminated after announcing her pregnancy, the financial pressures this caused, the terrible worry at a time when she had pregnancy-related complications and her fury that that worry meant she had to drop any legal proceedings. Her story alone should be a spur to action, but she is just one of many, many women with similar tales which are referred to in the book. Indeed Brearley calls for a #MeToo-like uprising of women and advises women to set up networks at their work or outside it to campaign for greater rights.
The book outlines how, due to gagging clauses when women leave or are pushed out, we don’t even know the extent of pregnancy and maternity discrimination because many women can’t talk about. Even if they haven’t signed a gagging clause, they are often put off taking legal action for fear they will be the ones to suffer in terms of reputation rather than their employer and that they will be seen as difficult by future employers if they do. Brearley describes the changes needed to the judicial system to help mothers facing discrimination, from fears about the cost to the time limits on when you can take action. In fact, she says, the number of women taking cases to the employment tribunal has fallen since 2005. That’s before we take into account the backlog in cases which has grown exponentially since Covid. Some women will wait years for justice, with all the increased stress this may bring.
And that’s if the legislation that exists is strong enough. Brearley points out, for instance, that there has been no successful case of pregnancy and maternity discrimination related to the recruitment process. Although she advises taking action on flexible working legislation and appealing [although an appeal is not guaranteed under the law], the law itself is incredibly weak and successful cases are usually based on other legislation, such as on indirect discrimination [because it is assumed women will need flexible work to fit around childcare]. So even the law that is used to protect women is based on gendered assumptions about who does the childcare.
The book covers everything from the UK’s very low statutory maternity pay rate, reports of some enhanced maternity pay schemes being dropped during Covid, Universal Credit childcare payment problems, rising self employment among mothers [which Brearley says is in part a result of a “badly functioning labour market”] and the impact of career breaks and low pay on the gender pensions gap to the intersectional nature of many of the issues facing mothers and why employers don’t do more to lobby the government about the woeful lack of regard for childcare infrastructure.
There’s practical advice on legal rights, what to do if you are offered a settlement agreement and how to share the domestic load. This is in keeping with the thrust of Pregnant Then Screwed’s invaluable work providing a free legal helpline to advise women.
The passion behind the book is clear. My one quibble would be that there is very little recognition of any progress made and that the sections on flexible working – a huge issue for parents – and self-employment issues are a bit light on detail. Maternity and pregnancy are a huge shock to the system for many women, but the longer term issue once you have negotiated that is to stay in work or get a new role. There is very little on homeworking, for instance, and what there is is almost entirely negative. Any positive employer examples tend to come from outside the UK as if there is not much going on at home. Brearley’s examples of bad practice tend to focus on employers who have a good reputation and don’t put them in any context. While it is, of course, valid to point out that even the better employers have elements of bias, it seems unfair to only focus on the negative and not set that against the context of all the work that is happening on this agenda, often by equally passionate individuals within organisations.
Brearley also notes that the British Social Attitudes survey shows bias against women working more than part time when their children are under five. Yet this is quite an improvement on attitudes just a few years previously where media interviews tended to be more interested in pitting working mums against stay at home mums [to the detriment of working mums] and interrogations centred around why any woman would work at all when her children were young. Brearley’s impatience with the rate of change is clear, and any progress made is often offset by other challenges, but social attitudes are shifting and new ideas are being explored by large numbers of women – and men – who are determined to reshape the world of work.
The book is, as Brearley says, ‘a call to arms’ against bad employment practices which Covid is likely to exacerbate and, as such, it is very timely. The urgency of the case for tackling the issues she raises is palpable. The book is also testament to the power of one woman’s anger. What we need is to harness the anger of all those affected and push for further change rather than feeling crushed by the weight of a system that is only designed for people with no responsibilities outside work and makes them blame themselves for being some kind of burden. It’s not parents who are the problem: it’s a world of work built for another time that doesn’t taken into account what the majority of workers will experience and people who bandy around the words freedom and choice without any understanding of the structures that limit them. As Brearley says at the end: “Don’t you ever think you are to blame for this. You are not. Don’t give up.”
*Pregnant Then Screwed by Joeli Brearley is published by Simon and Schuster, price 14.99 pounds.