Statistically, less than 1% of women who have been subject to pregnancy or maternity discrimination pursue a claim in the Employment Tribunal. Why is this figure so shockingly, unacceptably low?
When I decided to initiate the Tribunal proceedings my friend Marc, a trainee solicitor, likened it to David taking on Goliath. My ex-employer is a huge organisation with unlimited resources and no qualms about haemorrhaging excruciating amounts of money in order to crush me in the Tribunal Hearing, although preferably before. I am an unemployed mum of two under two from Northampton with nothing but a few rusty law modules at University and a steely determination. It’s obvious from the outset the odds aren’t looking great. Throw into the mix a pregnancy/new baby to contend with and a strict three month deadline to adhere to and it’s not surprising that many women don’t even make it to the stage of filling in an ET1 form.
The ET1 form is the first minefield to navigate. I found I was doing a crash course in Employment Law to construct what is essentially quite a technical document. My husband’s Law degree came in handy here along with my blagged textbooks (more on that later) and a few friends with a bit of legal knowledge who were happy to dissect my initial weak attempts. When it’s finally submitted the agonising wait for a response begins. I imagine this stage further weeds out any woman brave enough to have ventured this far. I found an elaborate concoction of false legitimacy pasted all over the version of events my ex-employers very expensive solicitor served made for infuriating reading.
At this point the real meaty research begins. This stage of the process quickly flagged up another big disadvantage for women in my position in there being a distinct lack of resources available for use. I scoured the local University Library and trawled the internet for hours desperately searching for the relevant information for my case but overall found that the Legal profession protects itself very well. Subscriptions to the latest Law databases cost hundreds if not thousands of pounds and the statute books and standard textbooks are also very expensive. Even locating a really good textbook in a local library is near impossible and the chances are it’s going to be out of date anyway as Employment Law is extremely fluid. I was very lucky; a barrister friend I had would borrow textbooks from his Chambers for me to use for a snatched day here or there – clearly 99% of women aren’t so fortunate.
The Preliminary Hearing is a hellish nightmare that no amount of reading around could have prepared me for. I foolishly looked up the Barrister who had reduced me to tears afterwards and instantly regretted it. Of course, he was Oxbridge educated and very experienced, specialising in discrimination cases and from the best Chambers in the country. I was naïve to have expected anything less! The process is intimidating by nature, add in an intimidating individual employing intimidating tactics and this creates a perfectly honed climate for an impressive emotional breakdown.
During one of my many hours of research I read that it is quite common not to agree on the documents that should be used in the Hearing and if that happens, just to prepare your own Bundle. This seems like sensible and practical advice. My Bundle was a hefty lever-arch file containing over 500 pages. I suspect that like me, the majority of women will not have access to industrial printing facilities to print the required six versions of the Bundle if they disagree with their Employer’s proposition. This is one of the many minor details which evoke a feeling of complete helplessness, a feeling which begins to have an increasingly strangling grip on any determination to persist the longer proceedings go on.
These practical issues alone would take many women to breaking point but they are nothing compared to the horrendous and all consuming, unrelenting emotional cost that must be paid to stay afloat in what is essentially a hellish sea of uncertainty. Everything is a stab in the dark and as a litigant in person, the Respondent is very aware of this easily accessible Achilles heel. Tactics vary, leaving it to the very last minute before documents are sent so there isn’t time to research/comprehend them properly seems to be pretty standard along with stating documents can’t be used as they are legally privileged when in fact they are not or issuing warnings not to waste the Tribunals time by reporting X, Y or Z to them etc. The list is endless.
Any woman who has made it this far is now likely to be playing out on the screen of her life the most warped, emotionally charged and disturbing game of ‘Deal or no Deal’ comprehendible. Negotiating Settlement Agreements is not for the faint-hearted and I suspect this is where any last stragglers clinging on to the hope of holding their Employer accountable in a Hearing are dealt with. Threats of costs being made (where your Employer will seek that you pay what will now be their astronomical Legal fees if you lose at the Hearing) and what in my experience, can only be described as playground bullying, are employed to eradicate anyone who has not yet cracked under the horrific pressure.
Really, it is not surprising only 1% of women remain standing ready for the final hurdle.
I am one of the 1%. I am under no illusion as to just how fortunate I have been to have had a vast support network buoying me up through what has been a horrendously stressful process. I am fighting for myself but also on behalf of the 99% of women who have been bullied, intimidated, threatened and shamed into silence. Having a family is not a crime and we as a society need to demand that Employer’s stop punishing us.
Written by Abigail