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What Not To Expect When You're Expecting

It's one of the most exciting times of your life, but many mothers are in the dark when it comes to their rights in the workplace. Whether it's telling your boss you're pregnant or asking for extra flexibility, ELLE UK is here to help.

One in nine mothers claim to have lost their jobs because of having children in the UK - and 77% of working mums experience some form of discriminationin the workplace. 

Both are illegal: yet most women are in the dark when it comes to their rights, before, during and after having a baby.

'Why are we not talking about it? Why does no-one know this is going on?' says Joeli Brearely. She's the founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, a platform offering free legal advice, a flexible working helpline and a platform for parents to share stories, anonymously, about their experiences with employers. They currently have teams in the UK, Spain, Sweden, and the US, and are looking to go global. 

Maternity Rights pregnant woman

She was working on a fixed term contract for a children’s contract, but when she told her employer she was pregnant, 'the next day they called and sacked me by voicemail and didn’t give a reason.'

'It was awful, I was heartbroken. I started googling, as you do, and I didn’t even know the term 'pregnancy and maternity discrimination'. I made about ten phone calls and no-one could help me.'

Many mothers, like Brearley, are in the dark when it comes to their rights in the workplace and what the law says on how they can be treated. It’s not only a question of legality. There are many pressures, both internal and cultural, that contribute to the 'motherhood penalty.'

'We are only tinkering around the edges – the whole system is flawed, it has been built by men; until very recently women were forced to stay at home and care for the children so the labour market didn’t need to accommodate mums,' Brearley says. 'It’s not going to be resolved in our lifetime - it’s too big a challenge - but we’ve got to make a start.'

So, where do you start? 

ELLE UK have written a how-to guide on everything from your rights around maternity pay to asking for flexible working hours once you've returned. 

Telling Your Employer You’re Pregnant 

It can be one of the most exciting times of your life but, for many women, telling an employer about a pregnancy can be a nerve-wracking experience, especially while struggling with the nausea and tiredness early pregnancy can bring.

Mostly, women choose not to disclose a pregnancy to their colleagues until after the first trimester. In the initial few months, the risk of miscarriage is high and it's during these first weeks that you tend to discover if there are any other early complications, such as the pregnancy being ectopic. 

As it can be a while before doctors determine the viability of the pregnancy, many women consider waiting to let other people know about it.

'You are trying to keep a secret from everyone, but in reality you are dealing with a seismic change which is constantly playing on your mind,' recalls Olivia Mason, a Development Manager at Tate, and a mother of one. 

She decided to return full time to a new job in June, after taking 13 months maternity leave and taking voluntary redundancy from her previous job. 

'It is the same period in which you feel most emotionally vulnerable, especially if it is your first child, and it can also coincide with dealing with morning sickness.'

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When preparing to tell your employer, don’t forget what you’re entitled to. Tracey Jansen, a mother of two, is the Assistant Director of Human Resources at the City of London Corporation. As such, she knows all about what women are entitled to legally in the UK.

'If you are directly employed by an organisation, there is an entitlement to take maternity leave, regardless of how long you have been employed or the hours that you work.'

IT’S NOT GOING TO BE RESOLVED IN OUR LIFETIME BUT WE’VE GOT TO MAKE A START

'You are entitled to have up to 52 weeks leave, with the correct notice, and can start your maternity leave any time from 11 weeks before the baby is due, up until the birth. You can take the maximum allowance or less, if you prefer, but you must have a minimum two weeks leave following the birth of your baby.'

You’re also entitled to paid time off to attend those vital antenatal appointments throughout your pregnancy.

Maternity Pay: The Basics

'Entitlement to Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) is a little more complex and depends on your length of service,' Jansen explains. 

'If you've worked for your employer for at least 26 weeks, ending with the 15th week before your due date, you will be entitled to 39 weeks maternity leave with pay: the first 6 weeks at 90% of your pay, followed by 33 weeks paid at the SMP rate, or 90 per cent of the UK average weekly earnings - whichever is the lower.'

In real money terms, SMP is R2709,96 per week, as of April 2018 - the amount is reviewed in April every year.

For self-employed mums and freelancers, all you’ll get is SMP - so advance financial planning is crucial. 

The Lowdown on Discrimination 

'Put very simply, discrimination is the mistreatment of a person because of or for a reason relating to a "protected characteristic,' explains Camilla Down, a solicitor specialising in employment.

Pregnancy and motherhood are protected characteristics and anyone who treats you differently as a direct result of these characteristics, is being discriminatory.

If you have your hours reduced involuntarily or you are fired and you believe that your termination of employment is a direct result of your motherhood or pregnancy, this is illegal and you can take action.

Many working mums experience discrimination in some form, either directly - or, in many cases, indirectly. 

'Indirect discrimination is slightly more nuanced,' says Down. It is both harder to identify and harder to take a stand against.

'A common example of [indirect discrimination] is a practice that employees should regularly attend drinks and evening events. Mothers may be disproportionately disadvantaged by this practice.'

Although often difficult to prove, you shouldn’t be afraid to speak up if you think something’s wrong.

'Although it can seem very daunting, I would advise that you raise this with your employer and give them an opportunity to remedy things. Remember that your employer has a duty to protect you from discrimination.'

'Suffering in silence can be agonising.'

'Not many people get sacked like I did, but bullying and harassment are common - they want you out because they see you as a burden,' says Brearley. 

Although it is illegal to fire a woman because they are pregnant or have a child, employers often find insidious ways to force women out. 'This might mean you’re suddenly left out of meetings, have really malicious things said to you in the hope you won’t return, which means women are stripped of their confidence. There are lots of ways of making it impossible for you to work, such as not being at all flexible, piling work on – in one case, someone’s office was even moved 300 miles away!'

How To Take Action Against Suspected Discrimination


If you think you’re being treated unfairly at work, Jansen advises, the best place to start is to think about the situation objectively. 

Brearley agrees: 'have a really open frank conversation with your employer. Often communication has broken down, and the employer doesn’t necessarily realise how the woman is feeling.'

'If that doesn’t work, document everything – whenever you go into a meeting, write down anything they say or do, take witnesses with you to meetings. Then contact usand we’ll help you through the process.'

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Going Back To Work

You’ve just had a baby: your body is still being shared with another human being, another life depends on you. Your periods might not have returned and you might not have physically recovered - let alone emotionally. Add to that sleepless nights, first teeth, and weaning, and the thought of returning to work can be overwhelming.

On top of that, you need to think about whether your job – as you left it – will still exist. If you're returning to work after six months maternity leave, you have the right to go back to your previous job, on exactly the same terms and conditions as when you left.  

However, that's only if the job still exists, and that depends on how your 'employment contract defines ‘the job’,' says Jansen. If you're taking more than six months leave, you still have the right to go back to your old job, but 'if it is not reasonably practicable for her to do so, she can be offered a similar job where terms and conditions must be as good.'

This is something Annie Rideout, now a freelance journalist, author, and mother to two young children, experienced when working as a copywriter for a tech start-up on a rolling contract.

'As I’d been with the company a year when I became pregnant, I assumed HR would be able to offer me support. If not in terms of maternity pay, at least in terms of keeping my job open,' Rideout explains. 

'At first they said they would, but they didn’t put it in writing. They were very shady about the whole thing. I was told that they’d find cover and I’d be able to return after six months. Six months after giving birth, I made contact and the job was no longer available.'

Although she never went back, like Brearly, Rideout didn’t give up on her career. She later started up her own digital parenting platform, The Early Hour. She has also recently landed a book deal and her first book, The Freelance Mum: A Flexible Career Guide for Better Work-Life Balance, out in January 2019, is a much-needed source of information and guidance for freelancers who are often not protected by any employment laws or entitled to maternity benefits.

Pregnant woman in dress holds hands on belly on a white background.

Coping Emotionally With The Return To Work

You’re reassured your child is in good hands, but women often neglect preparing themselves for both leaving their child for the first time and plunging back into the professional sphere.

'Many women struggle because they continue to do everything at home,' Brearley notes. Having an open discussion with your partner, if you have one, about childcare, routine, and sharing housework, will help achieve a balance.

'It seems so obvious but this routine means we know exactly what the plan is, it keeps things regular for our daughter,' Mason suggests.

Once you're are back, however, clearly establishing your work hours is equally important. As Emily recalls, 'If I was held up at work, it started getting very uncomfortable and was a physical reminder of our separation,' recalls Emily. 'She also still regularly woke up through the night for comfort and feeding so I was very tired.'

Mason advises establishing a set time to start and end the working day. 'For example, I work 8-4pm, as agreed with my team,' she explains. 'This means that they know exactly when I can be contacted and when I am available to join meetings.'

When it comes to childcare, reviewing as many options as possible before deciding will help you, and your child, feel more secure when you do go back. If feasible, allowing time for a few settling in days is a good idea.

CLEARLY ESTABLISHING YOUR WORK HOURS IS EQUALLY IMPORTANT

Breastfeeding can also add to the stress for many new mothers. While legally, employers must provide provisions for breastfeeding, many women, like Emily, don’t find their workplace conducive to breastfeeding, or feel shame or anxiety around pumping. This can lead to physical, as well as emotional, discomfort.

The Right To Flexible Working hours

Flexible working could be the future, not only for working mums. 

Everyone has the right to ask for flexible working hours (starting and finishing at flexible times) or to work from home. For many women, flexible working is a lifeline when returning to work, and the only viable way to balance having a career and children. 

While everyone has the right to request to work flexibly, Jansen points out 'this does not mean you have a right to work flexibly, but employers can only refuse on one of 8 specific grounds.'

These include contingencies such as the organisation believing the work could not reasonably be carried out under flexible working conditions, or the business could not meet customer demand as a result.

In the digital age, there are many ways to work flexibly, yet many companies are stuck in rigid and archaic ways of thinking that essentially exclude parents from their workforce.

'When it comes to flexible working, try to broach it with your employer as soon as you can, but don’t just say “I want this”, try to solve the problem for them: put the solution to them, so they’re more open and receptive to accepting your request,' suggests Brearley.

Many women opt to return to work part time, (the majority of the part-time workforce is working mums) but the true impact of this on their careers has been revealed by the recent IFS research. The reality is that many women are working just as many hours, for less pay, and with virtually no chance of a promotion.

Camilla Down, a solicitor who specialises in employment law, says 'I think one of the biggest challenges women face is progressing to the most senior level once they have returned from having children.'

'Employers are starting to realise that this is a widespread problem and more is being done to promote and support women and tackle unconscious bias that may exist within an organisation.'

The Elusive Work Life Balance

'There is no one size fits all in terms of returning to work and everyone feels differently about it,' Jansen notes. 

'You may decide that you won’t seek promotion or greater responsibility for a while until your baby starts school or you may decide to change roles so you can work close to home or reduce your hours or you may go straight back where you left off - there are choices to be made and everyone is in a different situation, so planning for your return is really key.'

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It’s best to be clear with your employer from the start - they cannot make assumptions about your commitment, ability to do your job effectively, or demote you because you are on or returning from maternity leave.

Don’t expect it to go smoothly, right from the start. 

'I felt pretty insecure for those first four months back at work,' Emily remembers. 'I felt that everyone was judging me and thinking I was doing a poor job. I didn't feel that I belonged at work or at home. One day I went to visit another school and being on the train by myself without the baby made me quite anxious.'

If all else fails - remember it will get easier.

'After several months I got in my stride and my life has just got happier and happier. Two years later I have never been more content,' reflects Emily. 'Your baby knows that they are loved. Whatever you chose for yourself and them is just normal to them. They still know you are mum.'

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