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Joeli Brearley was self employed, working on projects involving digital technology and art, when she found out she was pregnant.
She had two clients at the time. When she was four months pregnant she let them know about her pregnancy. She had cover sorted for her maternity leave so didn’t envisage any problems. Immediately her main client pulled her contract. “I was really shocked,” she says. “I could not believe people could behave in that way. I had worked with them for years on different projects and trusted them implicitly. I had no doubt that it was because I had said I was pregnant because they said that it was good news for me, but that they were very concerned about how it would affect their organisation. Two days later they left a message that my contract no longer existed and that I had to hand everything over immediately.”
Joeli was in a very difficult position as she felt it would be hard to get a job or take on any new contracts due to her pregnancy. “I felt I was unemployed for all intents and purposes and it was terrifying as I had no money and bills to pay,” she says. She sought legal advice, but was told that, as she was self employed, her case would come under contract law rather than employment law and that it would therefore be weaker. She decided not to pursue legal action, a decision she now regrets.
In the end it all worked out well as she ended up producing a publication for the British Council which got a lot of attention, did a project in Russia and found her current job as a part-time project manager for Future Everything, an annual music and art festival held in Manchester. She worked initially on a temporary contract then returned after maternity leave and says they have been extremely supportive.
Her anger over how she was treated when she announced her pregnancy stayed with her. “I had a high risk pregnancy and my doctor said I shouldn’t get too stressed so I didn’t take action. But I was cross with myself for not doing anything about it and for letting them treat me like that. I felt I wanted to do something positive about it,” says Joeli.
She knew other friends who had been treated badly by their employers as a result of getting pregnant. “I felt angry on their behalf,” she says. “And I didn’t think there was enough of a public debate about it. It seemed to me that this treatment was systemic. I felt at the time that I was alone, but I realised that it was really common. I thought the only way it would change was if someone exposed the problem and created a public debate about what is happening and the effect it has not just on individuals, but on companies and the economy.”
She was inspired by Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism project which uses personal stories to highlight different aspects of everyday sexism.
Joeli decided to set up a website called Pregnant Then Screwed to allow women to tell their stories. She launched the website on International Women’s Day, 8th March. The website has got quite a lot of media attention in the last few weeks. It was on the BBC website last week and the number of stories she has received has increased dramatically as a result. Before that she had 50 stories on the website, although more women had contacted her personally who were too scared to post online because of possible legal action or because they have signed confidentiality clauses.
“They said the website had given them confidence to tell their stories,” she says. In the last week she has had 70 more stories. “Every woman feels angry,” she says. The stories include harassment and bullying, demotion or being passed over for promotion. A film-maker has been in touch about making a documentary. Joeli is on BBC 5Live this week and the Guardian is also interested. She is also talking to the Equality and Human Rights Commission whose report on pregnancy discrimination is due out shortly.
In addition to the website, Joeli wants to launch a campaign to increase the time allowed to women to file legal proceedings after they have faced discrimination. Currently, they only have three months from the point of discrimination to file a case. If they are pregnant or on maternity leave they may be too preoccupied with the birth or too exhausted with looking after a young baby to take action, says Joeli. She would like to see a special dispensation afforded to women in this position to increase that period to 12 months. “I think it would have made the difference in my case,” she says.
If you would like to support the campaign or to tell your story if you have faced discrimination, get in touch with Joeli. “Telling your story helps not only to expose the problem and how big it is, but it helps others to feel more confident too,” says Joeli.