Written by Joeli Brearley
Pregnant Then Screwed has seen a 450% increase in calls to its free advice line during the pandemic. Here’s why.
It was a wet and colourless August day when Laurinda (not her real name) received a letter to say she was being made redundant. As she digested the crushing news, her heart briskly sank into the pit of her stomach, and the colour drained from her skin. She scrunched up the letter, stuffed it down the back of the sofa, and continued reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar to her three-year-old daughter. She could feel the sting of tears threatening to escape her now blood-shot eyes but she swallowed them back; her thoughts skipped between wondering how she would pay her mortgage, to whether it is actually possible for a caterpillar to eat a salami.
It had all started in April. After two weeks of attempting to do a full time job at home, alongside six hours of homeschooling, and the majority of the cooking and cleaning; it had felt as though she might self combust with exhaustion. During a Zoom call with her boss, Laurinda’s daughter had thwarted her father’s watchful eye and snuck her way into the office, clambering onto Laurinda’s knee, just as she was midway through an important presentation. Her daughter began drawing on her mother’s face with a green sharpie, her face alight with an impish grin. Laurinda tried to laugh it off, hoping her boss would see the funny side, but it was clear he was decidedly unimpressed. The following day, she received an email from the HR department suggesting she be furloughed: “We understand it’s a challenging time and are happy to furlough parents with children who are naturally struggling to work normal hours,” read the email.
Laurinda hadn’t felt there was much choice but to accept the offer. Two months later, the company announced it was making redundancies, and only those who had been furloughed were notified that their job was on the line. It just so happened that they were all mothers and pregnant women.
At Pregnant Then Screwed, the charity and campaigning group I founded in 2015, we have seen a 450% increase in calls to our free advice line since the pandemic started. In May of this year, due to the pandemic, The Institute of Fiscal Studies reported that mothers were 47% more likely than fathers to have permanently lost their job or quit, and they were 14% more likely to have been furloughed. Our research of 20,000 mothers in July found that 15% either had been made redundant or expected to be made redundant, and just under half (46%) said that the reason they had been made redundant was due to a lack of childcare. This is a generational roll back of maternal employment, with disabled mothers, single mothers and Black, Asian and ethnically diverse mothers worst affected.
The issue is, without schools or childcare facilities in operation, we very quickly revert to a family set up akin to the 1950s. Even before the pandemic, women were doing more than double the childcare and 60% more of the unpaid labour. With childcare facilities and schools closed, it’s mothers who find themselves firmly fastened to the kitchen sink, as the father’s paid work inevitably takes priority. That’s why, during lockdown, for every one hour of uninterrupted work done by mothers, fathers were doing three hours of uninterrupted work. In fact, the only time the caring and unpaid work was shared equally was when the father had been furloughed and the mother was still doing her paid job.
This unequal share of the domestic labour puts mothers’ jobs firmly on the chopping block when it comes to redundancy. Inevitably their performance has suffered as a result of too many competing priorities, and a large number have taken annual leave, or have been furloughed. With around 40% of companies saying they expect to make redundancies within the next 12 months and performance and absence being key influences in the decision making process, mothers are being unduly punished for a problem they had absolutely no control over.
Sophia is a disabled mother who had returned from maternity leave to her marketing manager job in January. During lockdown her workplace told her to accept an offer of being furloughed due to her childcare issues. She was the only person on her team to be furloughed. She had asked if she could take some annual leave to figure out her new routine now that both her kids were at home, but her request was denied. Of course, they repeatedly reassured her that her job was safe, until the risk of redundancy notice arrived two months later. Her boss explained that it was a necessary cost saving exercise, but then she discovered that they had started recruiting for a new role that was almost identical to the job she had just been pushed out of. ‘’I am so angry I have been treated like this,’’ Sophia told me.
Women who are pregnant, on maternity leave, or who have recently returned from maternity leave are particularly vulnerable to redundancy. Pregnant women are seen as a burden to business, with the Equality and Human Rights Commission finding that more than half of employers say there is resentment towards pregnant women from employers and colleagues. Before the pandemic, 54,000 women a year were being forced out of their job for daring to procreate; inevitably those numbers are now on the rise.
Michelle had informed her employer that she was pregnant at the start of the pandemic. The following day her supervisory role was taken away and her hours were cut. Then, out of her entire company, she was the only one made redundant. When she attended the redundancy consultation she was interviewed by a panel of four white middle-aged men. She recalls thatone of them pointed to her stomach, made a circle sign with his finger and said: “Of course we mustn’t let your situation affect our decision.’’
Although we can clearly see that pregnant women, mothers, disabled women and Black, Asian and ethnically diverse women are the first to go when redundancies are being made, there is little data to demonstrate how big a problem we are facing. Companies are not required to publish their redundancy statistics disaggregated by protected characteristics, which leaves campaigners and women’s organisations screaming into the void. The Office for National Statistics published data on the 15 September which found that the number of redundancies increased by 45% this quarter, compared to the last financial quarter, with a 79% increase in redundancies for women, compared to the previous quarter. In April, gender pay gap data was due to be published by all companies with over 250 employees, but the government decided that this was no longer a priority and suspended the requirement.
The statistics are utterly depressing, and it’s easy to feel dejected in the face of such a tirade of negative information, but there is hope.
Karishma was working in HR for a parcel company. She was on maternity leave with her daughter when her boss told her that the whole HR team were to be made redundant. He suggested she take voluntary redundancy as she would get a higher payout, but she would need to sign a settlement agreement, removing any future chance of taking legal action against the company. She accepted the offer and signed the agreement, but to her shock, the rest of the HR team kept their jobs. Two were even promoted. Still on maternity leave, in the midst of trying to balance the exhaustion and joy of new motherhood while navigating a global pandemic, Karishma had to start applying for jobs. With every application, Karishma prepared herself for a rejection knowing the competition was steep, but to her delight she was offered a role that was a step up from the position she had held at the parcel company. When she told her new employer about her young daughter, they said she could work as flexibly as she needed to. She is happier than she has ever been.
If you have been made redundant, we’ve put together an online programme to help you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back in the game. Redundancy Rehab will take you on a journey from understanding your legal rights to rebuilding your confidence and resilience, figuring out what it is you want to do next, plus how to give yourself the best chance of securing the next dream role, or how to start your own business. As it’s all online you can sit and listen from your living room wearing nothing but your pants whilst eating peanut butter straight out of the jar. Bliss. And when you get an interview for that dream job we can even offer you some free childcare via our friends at Bubble.
The programme is only £20 and if you can’t afford it then drop us an email and we will give you a code to access it for free.
Being made redundant can feel like the end of your career, but with the right support, it can be just the beginning. Keep your chin up lasses, you’ve got this.
*All names in this article have been changed. To ensure we can protect the identity of Sophia we have said she is disabled but not stated what type of disability she has
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