Today sees the launch of Working Forward, a campaign create by the Equality and Human Rights Commission that aims to ‘make workplaces the best they can be for pregnant women and new mothers’. Pregnancy and maternity discrimination affects around 390,000 pregnant women and new mothers each year across the UK, and while the majority of employers say they are firm supporters of female staff during and after pregnancy, three in four mothers, that’s a whopping 77%, say they have had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience at work.

While there have been huge advances for women in the workplace in recent years, as is evident from this research many are still being pushed out of their jobs unfairly, or failing to be offered promotions, or feeling ostracised, all because of motherhood. To find out more about what is often referred to as the ‘motherhood penalty’, we spoke to four working mums about their experiences around work, pregnancy and becoming new mothers. Here they share their stories and tell us what they believe needs to change…

(Some names have been changed)

Anna, founder Mother Pukka, and mother-of-one

Before moving the UK we lived in Amsterdam where I had a really good experience working for a fashion label called SuperTrash. While maternity leave is only three months there, it was a seamless process and when it is time to return to work, most mothers there go back to a three day week. It’s standard there because they realise the gargantuan shift in your life that happens once you have a baby. I never felt guilty leaving work on time there. In short, Holland has it down.

When we moved the UK I secured a role as senior copywriter at L’Oreal which I really loved, but a five-day week with no option to work flexible hours made for a mad twice-daily commute that left me in a mangled, sweaty heap at daycare come 6pm. Add to that the extortionate childcare costs, and in the end I decided that it just wasn’t working for me. I left that job dazed, confused and determined to work out how to make it work for me and for my daughter, Mae. 

I think from my positive experience in Holland, flexible working has to be seen on a case-by-case basis. Why should my request for a four-day week be dependant on someone else in the team potentially getting knocked up and ‘demanding’ the same? Every situation is unique and I think the big issue here is it being seen as a parent issue. I know one woman in a high powered position who has negotiated every Friday morning off to go to the V&A because it makes her more productive. I think mothers just need to be seen as people with a separate set of circumstances. Salaries aren’t one-size-fits-all, so why should this be any different?

In order for things to change companies need to be educated. I’m aware of a couple of companies that offer maternity training to line managers, allowing them to effectively manage a woman just back from maternity leave. If you have the line manager in an educated position, that filters down. There’s an assumption among many in office environments that you’re ‘sacking off’ if you leave early from an office that operates a strict nine to five culture, but it’s ridiculous, we’re not heading to Weatherspoons for a beer and burger deal – that attitude shift comes from the top.

Jenny, 41, curator and mother-of-three

When I first fell pregnant I found myself in the precarious position of waiting for my role to be changed (on paper) to reflect the work I was actually already doing and being paid for. So I held off telling my employer I was pregnant until the last possible moment in an attempt to get that all sorted. My boss, despite being a mother who herself had experienced discrimination whilst pregnant, was quite possibly one of the most unsupportive people I have come across. I had a feeling she wouldn’t not support me once finding out I was pregnant, and I was right. Once I told her my salary was immediately reduced and my role was downgraded (not in reality, just on paper). I was then told I would need to reapply for the role I was effectively doing already. Rather unsurprisingly I didn’t get the job, and instead it was filled by someone on a lesser salary and on a contract without any pension or benefits.

The whole experience was hideous. The last thing you need when weeks away from giving birth is a series of meetings with the HR department and your union rep. I can’t say I was surprised by the sequence of events that took place next as it was very much in character with my line manager. Soon after I returned to work following my maternity leave I left the organisation. I now feel so much happier to no longer be working there but it does still cause a pain in my stomach to think of the discrimination I endured. It angered me that they would behave so unfairly and put undue stress on me, and my baby.

I’m sure that all circumstances are very different but I think that employers should talk to mothers (and fathers) to find the best way to support a return to work. We also need to find out how we can make employers, who cannot see past the wage, or bottom line, see pregnant women and new mother as people who contribute a huge amount to any given organisation, and that being a mum does not affect that.

I believe that a lot of the discrimination that mothers encounter at work is most likely being conducted by employers who do not believe they are discriminating against them. I imagine that a lot of the time employers think that by diminishing a role they are making things ‘easier’ for the returning mother. I think the two things that will make things better for mums returning to work is for flexible working and leave for both mothers and fathers, and more emphasis on a sharing of parental obligations. Also, for businesses to adopt a far more open approach to flexible working for all employees so the disparity felt by mothers no longer exists. Perhaps this is a positive approach Millennials will bring to the workforce in years to come.

Rebecca, 39, talent manager and mother-of-two

My employer was very supportive while I was pregnant. They knew that I wanted to come back to work after I’d had my baby, and when I did come back to work after nine months away they were again very supportive, although it was my responsibility to come up with a plan to make my part-time hours work for the business. Not long after my return I was actually promoted which meant that I was able to hire more people for my team. That said I know another women, and a man, from my work who have not been able to return as they couldn’t negotiate hours that would work for both them and the business. This is such a shame, especially when people really want to return, and this is something that I want us as a business to work harder on in future. 

In terms of how I felt on my return, I felt very vulnerable, like I had something to prove. I couldn’t socialise with everyone at the pub anymore, or be around for late meetings. I had a few people referring to me being part-time constantly, which I read into as meaning that they thought I didn’t work as hard as everyone else which did not feel good. I think some people write you off once you’ve children. There’s an assumption that you aren’t fun anymore, that you have nothing interesting to say, or that you aren’t ambitious, or want to progress with your career. Given all of this it took me a while to find my place in the workplace again.

At my workplace we are now looking to change the way we approach flexible working, and in particular returning to work after parental leave. This includes mentoring for pregnant women and new parents so that they have someone at work who has been through it all to talk to. We are also looking at roles within the business that could be part-time or job shared. I also think that although for many it isn’t going to make financial sense when you initially return to work due to childcare costs, I think we need to be careful that we don’t work out the cost of childcare against the woman’s salary. It should be a shared cost if you’re in a relationship and not seen as the woman’s responsibility. 

Sara, 32, Happity founder and mother-of-two

I actually had a really positive experience of pregnancy and returning to work, but then the reality of working in an office role kicked in and I decided to leave my job. I joined the BBC as a strategy manager and in the early stages of my pregnancy, I applied for and was hired in a new role. I told them as soon as I was offered the job and they were really supportive. We were even able to shape my projects to fit with the timing of my maternity leave. When I returned 13 months later I went part-time working three days a week.

But even with a massively supportive workplace, I think it’s fair to say I still suffered both parent and worker guilt. Even keeping to strict nine to five hours meant my daughter had a 10 hour day at nursery and was left feeling grumpy and tired. Then as a part-time worker, I missed certain team meetings, and scheduling time was more difficult with my colleagues. It also meant I couldn’t step forward for new opportunities in the way I would have done prior to having children. In an ideal world, I would have liked for both me and my husband to work 4 days a week and share the nursery run between us, so in the end I decided to leave my job and set up my own business, which although is hard work, it means I can work at the times I want to.

I’m a strong believer that workplaces need to be made both more parent and carer friendly in a much broader sense. Restricting policies to mums simply marks them out as being ‘different’ and less economically attractive to businesses. It no longer makes sense in our society where both parents want and need to play a role in bringing up their children. And men, who want to spend time with their kids, face their own set of challenges, often finding it difficult to step away from work. I would love to see ‘use it or lose it’ parental leave for dads to encourage more of them to take time out with their children and a greater uptake of Shared Parental Leave so that women can return to work sooner without the guilt. 

I think a common problem for mothers returning to work is that not enough time is spent assessing the role and what should or shouldn’t be contained within that role. Would it be better as a job-share? Are there other flexible ways of working? For example, it might be unorthodox, but actually it’s okay to tackle the admin and emails in the evening once the kids are in bed, plus remote working does wonders for increasing the amount of time you have in your life. By and large, I say, if you want to better support mothers, you need to be supporting fathers too. Why not ask them if they would like to consider part-time work, or take parental leave.

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