'Maternity paranoia' and why having a baby can still ruin your career

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Almost every woman who has been on maternity leave will recognise the uneasy feeling: a creeping suspicion that while you've been away giving birth and raising a baby, the office has moved on and forgot about you. You're left wondering why, when you return from having your baby, your opinion doesn't seem to carry as much weight as it used to. And you have an unnerving sense that you're being quietly sidelined – coupled with the worry that you will be penalised further for saying so.

Though hard to pinpoint, these misgivings were recently given a label: "maternity paranoia". It was coined by a male boss who accused London architect Julie Humphryes of having an overactive imagination when she complained that a male colleague was getting the credit for her design work. Far from being fantasy, last month an employment tribunal found her fears were well-founded: awarding her nearly £250,000 (AU$533,060) for being edged out of her £105,000 a year job.

There is, perhaps, no neater term with which to encapsulate the subtle ways in which working mothers may now find themselves discriminated against. Clearly dismissive, it cleverly implies that a loss of rational thought (perhaps due to baby brain and sleeplessness) means you're seeing persecution where there is none. But as new figures prove, you're not paranoid if they're really out to get you.

A report published this week by Britain's Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) posits that women returning from maternity leave are even more likely to face discrimination in the workplace than they were a decade ago – estimating that about 54,000 British mums may be forced out of their jobs each year. Of the 3200 women surveyed in conjunction with the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, 11 per cent reported being dismissed, made redundant or treated so poorly that they felt forced to leave their jobs.

There's no doubt that many of the 340,000 British women who take maternity leave each year are well supported as they get back into their stride, but the EHRC figures highlight the plight of a significant minority. These are the returners who find their jobs have been conveniently axed as part of "restructuring" while they have been away; who are turned down for flexible working; passed over for promotion; or find they no longer have the responsibilities they one did.

Of those  who press on in the same role, there is still a price to be paid: one in 20 reported receiving a cut in pay or bonus.

Sarah Jackson, the chief executive officer of Working Families, believes this may be attributable to a "reality gap", rather than wilful discrimination. "Organisations often have good intentions and the right policies but unless line managers are properly trained in maternity rights and are supported in their management of pregnant women and new mothers, this is where it can, and often does, go wrong."

A quick survey of the most frequent questions asked of employment law companies, however, makes it clear how many simmering resentments prevail, including: "Do I have to put up with a pregnant employee who keeps on disappearing for maternity appointments?" And "The maternity replacement has turned out to be much better than the woman she replaced. Can we keep her and move the new mother sideways?"

It's perhaps no wonder that women feel under pressure to "baby-proof" their careers. Determined to prove to colleagues that having a baby wouldn't diminish her drive, divorce lawyer Ayesha Vardag kept working on all-night legal deals right up to the day before the birth of her first child – then returned to work when her son was just five weeks old.

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Even so, she still felt what she calls "baby shame"; a fear that discussing her children at work would suggest conflicting priorities. Vardag recalls, "On one occasion I managed to meet the nanny for a lunchtime baby group – having been so baby-deprived, it was the most sublimely happy experience, yet when I got back I acted as if I'd been at a business lunch. However hard I worked, for some colleagues the fact that I had children clearly put me into the realm of the also-rans."

Though discrimination may be less overt today, the notion that working mothers are a burden to a company's bottom line still seems deeply ingrained in our culture.

Joeli Brearly, a project manager who was sacked soon after telling them she was pregnant, set up a campaign called Pregnant Then Screwed to draw attention to the scale of the problem – and has been deluged by those with similar stories.

"The worst affected are those who face a slow-drip feed of bullying and torment, which leads to them leaving of their own free will, as they can't cope with the stress," she says.

"Then there are those who are simply ignored. They are not put up for promotion, or have responsibilities taken from them. Nothing is said directly, they are just made to feel worthless."

The Telegraph, London

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