The Pregnancy Penalty: Maternity Discrimination Against Career Women

'If you decide to keep the baby, I'll have to let you go'

Joeli Brearley pregnancy discrimination Grazia

by Louisa Pritchard |
Published on

You wouldn't imagine these words are still spoken by bosses in the 21st century – but they are.

Shocking new figures have revealed that three quarters of expectant and new mothers are treated unfairly at work - Joeli Brearley shares her shocking experience of pregnancy discrimination.

When Joeli found out she was pregnant, she decided to tell her clients straight away.

Self-employed, she wasn't particularly worried about their reaction – she'd been working on a huge project with them and counted the CEO as a friend, even going to his wedding. Yet after letting him know her news, Joeli was sacked. Over voicemail.

Shocking? Yes. Unusual? Sadly no.

Joeli Brearley pregnancy discrimination Grazia
Credit: Claire Wood

Last month, new figures revealed three-quarters of pregnant women and new mothers experience discrimination at work, with one in nine losing their job as a result and one in 10 saying they were discouraged from going to their antenatal appointments. Meaning Joeli is far from alone in her experience.

In fact, this 'pregnancy penalty' is on the increase; the report found that maternity discrimination has risen significantly since 2005 when 45% of women – compared compared to 77% in the latest research – said it had happened to them.

"I can’t get over the loss of talent. It seems such a scandalous waste of great people," says Jo Swinson, chair of Maternity Action. The former Lib Dem MP and Minister for Women and Equalities (she lost her seat in 2015), Jo enlisted the Equality and Human Rights Commission to do the biggest ever study into pregnancy discrimination in 2013. The results were shocking and stark – 54,000 women are forced out of their jobs every year.

"There remain a group of dinosaur employers who are treating women very badly," adds Jo. "Women are either being sacked or are leaving because they find the pressure at work untenable. There are some dreadful and outrageous practices of discrimination going on."

For Joeli, 37, from Manchester, she experienced this blatant discrimination first hand. "I had been self-employed for 18 months and had taken a project idea to a company I knew very well and had worked with before.

"We were three months into the project when I found out I was pregnant. I sent the client an email saying I'd made sure there was someone who could step into my shoes when I was on maternity leave and had mapped out the rest of the project for them to ensure there wouldn't be any problems.

"I then got a text message from the CEO saying congratulations but I'm a bit concerned about how this will affect my company. And then two days later I had a voicemail saying my contract was being rescinded."

Stunned, Joeli looked into taking legal action. "Then I found out I was having a high-risk pregnancy and the doctor said, whatever you do, don't get stressed. So the decision was taken out of my hands – I couldn't risk it. I never really recovered from it, I was so angry it had happened and it just ate away at me."

After hearing similar stories from her mum friends, Joeli set up, a volunteer-led project that documents the experiences of women who face discrimination, offers support and campaigns for change. "It tends to be a slow drip of bullying and it just annihilates their confidence," says Joeli.

"So many women I've spoken to said their careers were in tatters by the time they went on maternity leave. The majority of them were resigning themselves to never working again. I've spoken to women this happened to years ago and they have never recovered from it."

For many women, they are unable to get any form of justice for the discrimination they've faced. The government report found that, despite the high levels of women facing negative treatment and discrimination, only 3% went through their employer's internal grievance procedure and fewer than 1% took their employers to tribunal. Since the introduction in July 2013 of tribunal fees (it now costs £1,200 to lodge a claim), the number of pregnancy-related cases fell by 50%.

So what can women do if they find this is happening to them?

Jo Swinson says, "I'd advise women to know their rights and understand the law. It will depend on the relationship you have with your boss and the size of your company. If you're in a big corporation they will have an HR department and have processes. If you work for a small employer, you might be the first person they've had go on maternity leave. In that case, it's worth printing out guidance for employers (available at so they can take it away and have a read through. It reinforces what you're talking about and it's good for them to know the law and what their responsibilities are."

Good starting points are PregnantThenScrewed, the Maternity Action hotline, offers pregnancy and baby advice for mums-to-be, the Citizens Advice Bureau and ACAS who will advise you to keep a record of any unfair treatment. Yet the fact remains, this shouldn't be happening.

What needs to happen now?

Last week, Grazia was in Parliament with The Labour Party and Maternity Action to discuss what urgently needs to happen to tackle this problem. Rosalind Bragg, director of Maternity Action, told Grazia, "We need a high profile Government campaign to change employer behaviour and funding for specialist advice services.

"We need to give women a remedy when things go wrong, which means proper enforcement of health and safety rights and an end to employment tribunal fees."

Maternity Pay and Maternity Leave explained

Before you go on maternity leave, you'll need to know what sort of maternity package you will get at work so you can plan ahead. If you're currently in full-time employment you should be eligible for Statutory Maternity Pay or Contractual Maternity Pay, and if you're self-employed or recently left your job, you could be eligible for a Maternity Allowance.

Statutory Maternity Leave

Every woman is entitled to Statutory Maternity Leave, which is currently 52 weeks in the UK. It's made up of 26 weeks of ordinary maternity leave and 26 weeks of additional maternity leave, some of which is paid for by the state. There has been some form of provision for state-paid maternity leave for over a century now in the UK, although in the past it's been patchy, to say the least. Only since 2006 has the ability for all women in full-time employment to take a year off work been written into the law.

Statutory Maternity Pay

You are entitled to Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) as long as you have worked with your current employer continuously for at least 26 weeks up to the 15th week before your due date, and you earn on average over £112 per week, which is the minimum amount for National Insurance contributions.

Contractual Maternity Pay

Contractual Maternity Pay (CMP) is when an employer offers to pay more than the statutory payments as an incentive to attract talented workers, and what they offer will vary from employer to employer.

How much SMP will I be paid?

Statutory Maternity payments are currently set at 90% of your full monthly earnings for 6 weeks, with the remaining 33 weeks paid at the weekly standard rate of £139.58, or the earnings-related rate if this is the lesser of the two.

To find what you are personally entitled to, you'll need to ask your employer's HR department - their package will also be set out in your terms of employment. Those offering more generous Contractual Maternity Pay (CMP) can pay as much as six months at the 90% level, so there is an enormous difference in what you might receive.

How will SMP be paid?

With SMP and CMP your employer deposits the payments into your bank account as per usual; you are considered to be on continuous service with your current employer for the whole of your maternity leave period.

Are SMP Maternity payments taxed?

SMP and CMP are treated as income, and your employer will make the usual deductions, from income tax to national insurance and pension payments.

When should I tell my employer I am pregnant?

You need to make sure you tell your employer by the end of the 15th week before your due date but lots of people share their news earlier than this as a courtesy, which can also put a halt to awkward questions about large lunches!

Your boss should congratulate you, rather than making you feel guilty for inconveniencing them. Employers can usually claim over 90% of the SMP they give you back from HMRC, and can even apply for an advance if they're really stretched.

Hopefully working out your maternity pay and leave will be straightforward, but don't let your employer make you feel flustered. It helps to know your rights.

Do I have to return to work after maternity leave is over?

Payment of SMP does not depend on you intending to return to work for your employer after your baby is born. If you qualified for SMP, you are entitled to get it and keep it, even if you do not return to work.

However, if you received CMP your employer may be able to ask for some of this money back, although the terms must be agreed prior to the start of your leave, or laid out in your contract.

Can they change my job while I'm away?

After your maternity leave ends, you have an absolute right to return to your former job after ordinary maternity leave on the same terms and conditions.

**Maternity Allowance explained **

If you're self-employed, and so not entitled to SMP, you could be eligible for a Maternity Allowance (MA), provided you've been paying National Insurance contributions, or you recently left your job.

To register for MA, you need to apply online at Payments reach a maximum of £139.58 a week or 90% of your average weekly earnings (whichever is less) for up to 39 weeks, or £27 a week for up to 14 weeks depending on your circumstances.

**Is Maternity Allowance taxed? **

MA isn't on the list for taxable income.

**When does maternity leave start? **

Whether you're claiming SMP, CMP or MA, the earliest you can start your maternity leave is 11 weeks before your due date. Obviously, lots of people work a few weeks more, so they have additional paid time off when the baby arrives. Either way, if the baby comes early, maternity leave and pay starts on the day after the birth.

**Are there any other maternity-related benefits I can claim? **

You can get a maternity exemption certificate from your doctor or midwife which entitles you to free prescriptions and dental treatment on the NHS while you are pregnant, and for 12 months after the birth.

If you have any more questions, the website is very thorough on the main points and has contact details for further enquiries. Your employer should also be able to help with any specific questions related to their contract.

Have you suffered the pregnancy penalty? Tell us your experiences on

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Pregnancy Discrimination – The Lowdown, The Law, The Way Forward

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