The world has a thing about angry women.
From parliament to protests, a woman who raises her voice is all too often pegged as someone to be ridiculed, not reckoned with. Until now, perhaps. Now that we’re all angry, could things be changing? Certainly, if Joeli Brearly has anything to do with it, they will be.
“Women are really, really, really angry. Mothers, in particular, are livid,” the founder of Pregnant Then Screwed tells me through a mouthful of crumbs – relatably, everything, including lunch, is being crammed into a one-hour window between meetings and picking up the kids. “We’ve been prevented from creating the change we need to see, because we’re drowning,” she continues. “We’re livid, but we’re livid under a mountain of work that’s drowning out the noise that we’re making.
“So, until we’re able to get out of our houses and start going to things where we can be vocal, we’re not going to be fully heard. But the positive for me is that we’re finally seeing these inequalities with such a magnifying glass on them that women are genuinely angry. And you don’t create change until people get angry.”
Brearly is right, of course – but she’s also wrong. Because while many of us have undoubtedly been muted by our work mountains, she’s somehow created more noise than ever before from beneath hers.
Brearly founded her charity, Pregnant Then Screwed, back in 2015 – two years after she was sacked, by voicemail, within hours of announcing her pregnancy. Initially, she intended to take her employer to court. But hers was a high-risk pregnancy, and with the emotional and financial cost of legal action proving too great, she decided to instead set up an organisation for others who shared her predicament. Her thinking? If she could just raise awareness that women were still being sacked for having children, something, inevitably, would be done.
“I call that stage of Pregnant Then Screwed the ‘waiting for a hero’ stage,” she laughs now. “I genuinely thought, ‘I’ll expose this problem and somebody will fix it.’ And, of course, that didn’t happen.”
What happened instead was that Brearly discovered how horrifyingly common her situation was. Pre-pandemic, 54,000 women a year were forced out of their jobs due to pregnancy or maternity leave, while 77 per cent of working mums had encountered workplace discrimination. To add insult to injury, many were then being silenced in their suffering, either unable to afford legal action or forced to sign NDAs banning them from speaking up about their experiences.
Back then, Brearly explains, the Pregnant Then Screwed legal advice hotline was receiving between 3,000 and 4,000 calls a year. During the pandemic, however, the team has helped more than 33,000 women, such has been the increase in demand. “We did some research last July with 20,000 mothers, and that found that 15 per cent had either been made redundant or expected to be made redundant in the next six months,” Brearly sighs. “And just under half said the reason they were being made redundant was because of the lack of childcare. So, they knew why they were being pushed out.”
It’s a situation, she says, that won’t just revert on the other side of the pandemic. “It took us 20 years to increase maternal employment by just nine per cent. It took loads of really hard work and now we’re just giving it all up.
“And the thing that really grates is that it really didn’t have to be this way. And it’s all about gender-blind policymaking from the government – they just at no point considered pregnant women and mothers in their planning, and the only time that’s ever even been mentioned by the government is when Rishi Sunak gave us all a little pat on the head.”
Brearly is great company – quick-witted and sharp, she’s as ready with a joke as she is with facts and stats. Yet, the shift in her demeanour when discussing her 2013 sacking suggests the ordeal is still raw.
“I’ve spoken to so many women who’ve had really horrendous, horrific experiences. Women who’ve ended up homeless, or with severe long-term mental health issues as a result. I can only really speak for myself, but for me, I went from being completely in control of my life, doing well in a career, earning my own money and thinking about an exciting future, to having no job and that all being completely pulled from under me, within a couple of days. I felt like I’d lost my identity. I couldn’t pay my own way so my partner had to pay for my keep. Suddenly, the only thing I was useful for was as a vessel for this growing foetus, and I wasn’t even doing that very well.
“It was such an extreme situation, and I think that’s why, for me, it really lifted the blindfold off and radicalised me.”
Eight years on, Brearly works full time on Pregnant Then Screwed, lobbying MPs, organising campaigns, providing HR guidance, mentoring and legal support for women and even, earlier this year, taking the government to court to fight a flaw in the SEISS coronavirus support package that ignored maternity leave and left an estimated 70,000 self-employed mothers considerably worse off as a result. The charity lost the case, but plans to appeal.
“[Going to court] was stressful, but I’m still very happy that we did it,” Brearly says, thoughtfully. “Because it wasn’t just about the 70,000 women who were receiving this much reduced payment for doing what is the most important job in the world. It became about the sanctity of maternity leave. It became about caring being valued. It became about the government not being able to ride roughshod over the Equality Act and pretend that maternity leave is just going on holiday. Because the value of it has got to be understood by government. I mean, I do appreciate there are complexities, but God, if the government didn’t do things because it was complex, what sort of situation would we be in? Complexity doesn’t make it okay.”
If all of this sounds like a lot for one woman to shoulder, Brearly has also been busy writing her first book, Pregnant Then Screwed: The Truth About the Motherhood Penalty and How to Fix It. Simultaneously, of course, she was homeschooling her two boys, aged five and seven, and navigating a pandemic like the rest of us, which begs the question – how the hell has she kept going when so many of us have been sinking into anxiety and overwhelm?
“I mean, to be perfectly honest, it’s been horrendous at points,” she sighs. “There’s been a lot of arguments with the kids, and between me and my partner, and homeschooling sort of fell apart, and you’re just shoving screens in their faces to try and get your own stuff done. And that level of guilt is enormous.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, I stopped sleeping, because I was so worried about the women that were contacting us, pregnant women in particular. We felt like they weren’t getting any information, that nobody was protecting them, and we were doing everything we could to keep trying to raise this because we could see something was going to go horribly wrong. And the worst moment of it all was when Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapong, the 28-year-old pregnant nurse, died. I mean that broke me…”
Brearly tails off, apologises for the tears in her eyes. “Just the utter travesty of it, and to know that we tried so hard. I’m still friends with her husband, we stay in touch, which is lovely, and her daughter survived and I know the kids are doing really well.
“But I think we’ll all be paying the price mentally for a very long time. And not just in terms of the pressure, but in terms of just swallowing stuff down because you’ve just got to get on with it, haven’t you?”
For Brearly, that means fighting for better, for as long as this pandemic keeps us at home, and for a long time after too. Proper paid paternity leave, she says, would be top of her wishlist, a move that would level the playing field like no other. Second on the list, properly funded childcare – something she admits feels like a distant pipe dream under the current government. “Boris Johnson, in 2006, said the children of working mothers were more likely to mug you,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Now the excuse will be, ‘We haven’t got a magic money tree’.”
For now though, as the nation remains trapped at home, Brearly hopes deeply that her book – a hugely well researched manifesto in favour of both the economic and emotional benefits of workplace equality – will help ready readers for the fight that’s coming on the other side of the corona-crisis.
“I want everybody to read it and feel really angry,” she says, smiling wryly. “A lot of women experience pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and they think they’re at fault. They blame themselves and think they are the burden, because that’s the narrative that we’re fed. So, I want women to know that it’s not their fault.
“Mostly, I want everyone to understand the barriers that women face because of this notion, still, that the gender pay gap is because of the choices women make. It’s all total bollocks. And if we can get that message across then when we can get out there and start shouting again, there will now be an army of us that are going to go out and shout. And we’re going to make a lot of noise…”
Joeli Brearly’s book, Pregnant Then Screwed: The Truth About the Motherhood Penalty and How to Fix It, is out now, published by Simon & Schuster (£14.99). Buy your copy here, or find out more about the work of Pregnant Then Screwed here.