‘Just how low will your government stoop?’, Jo Swinson asked Theresa May on Twitter, after finding out that Brandon Lewis, a Tory MP, undermined her job while she was on maternity leave by voting during two divisions on the Trade Bill when he had agreed not to as she was off looking after her son.
When an MP cannot attend a vote in the House of Commons, they are paired with someone in an opposing party who also agrees not to vote so as to counteract each others opposite votes and keep the process fair. In this instance, Swinson was paired with Lewis on the votes regarding the trade bill, of which he didn’t vote for most the day but chose to on the two closest visions, the customs vote and one on medicine regulation.
Lewis has since apologized to Jo on Twitter for breaking their agreement to pair, something that Andrea Leadsom had assured pregnant MPs would be protected when she delayed a motion to have a proxy vote when MPs were on parental leave. However, Lewis is yet to explain how this ‘honest mistake’ occurred, while chief whip Julian Smith has admitted to asking Lewis to vote ‘in error’.
If party whips are capable of undermining an agreement to pair, it calls into question just how safe female MPs are in their job when taking maternity leave. And unfotrutnately, it’s reminiscent of how unsafe all women are when they’re on parental leave.
‘Jo Swinson has been a victim of maternity discrimination committed by our own Government,’ Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, told Grazia, ‘as this news unfolded there were thousands of women across the UK who could immediately identify with Jo's situation, being told not to worry, that your role would be protected, only to discover it was all lip service to make you shut up and go away.’
Unsatisfied with the government response to Swinsons complaints, Brearley continued:
‘Tory whips and Brandon Lewis blatantly ignored an agreement made in good faith, later apologising via twitter with remorse so false that all the world's tiny violins immediately self combusted. Yet again, the needs of mothers are being ignored in Westminster proving it is an old boys club that doesn't give a damn about the challenges working women encounter. When the Government behaves like this, what hope do we have that companies will start respecting mothers in the workplace?’
It's a good question, given that new mums are more likely to face discrimination when returning to work than they were ten years ago, according to a 2015 report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The report found that around 54,000 British mums may be forced out of their job each year.
This research was only cemented earlier this year, when the EHRC published another report regarding employers attitudes to pregnancy and maternity discrimination. They found that 51% of employers agree there is resentment amongst employees who are pregnant or on maternity leave, and 41% believe pregnancy puts ‘an unnecessary cost burden’ on the workplace. With discriminatory attitudes like this still rife amongst employers, it’s really no wonder that women have their jobs undermined while on maternity leave.
‘[Swinson’s experience] is very reflective of what mothers experience when they are on maternity leave’, Brearley continued, ‘they have their work undermined, they are used as a scape goat by others, they are made to feel guilty because they are taking a few months to recover from major surgery and work out how to thrive in their new role as mother.’
‘For many this only becomes apparent when they return from maternity leave and their colleagues behave differently, or they have had their desk placed down a dark end of the office away from everyone else, or they notice the majority of their work has been given to someone else with no intention of it being handed back.’
And these attitudes don’t just impact women in the short-term after returning to work, they have a huge impact on their entire career progression. It’s why women earn a third less than men after returning to work, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and why their less likely to be promoted or receive a pay rise, and why the reach a glass ceiling despite giving years of their life to a company.
While changing the culture around maternity leave may take some time, for MPs in particular, the response to Swinson’s complaint could be instant. Labour MP Harriet Harman has submitted pursuant to the proxy voting motion, stating ‘parliament sets the rules for people outside the House to take maternity, paternity and shared parental leave and yet we ourselves have no system.’
She has joined forces with Maria Miller, Jess Phillips, Hannah Bardell and Vicky Ford to ensure Theresa May doesn’t ignore their motion or ‘kick it into long grass’.
These women are the living proof of why we need female MPs in parliament...