I’m exhausted from being so upset about it; they have won that battle

To summarise: I felt pushed out and unreasonably punished.

Here are some facts:
• I had been working there for five years when I became pregnant.
• My pregnancy was disclosed before I was 12 weeks without my consent.
• Whilst pregnant, junior members of staff were trained on managerial duties I hadn’t been trained on.
• I was asked to justify absence. (Him: are you actually sick? Me: no, I’m pregnant and told you yesterday I have low blood pressure so was advised by the midwife blahblahblah)
• Just after my mat leave started, a role identical to mine (bar 500 p/a different salary) was advertised. This seemed strange after company-wide cuts and seconding members of staff from less busy branches to ours. There was not enough work for permanent staff elsewhere and things were looking tight.
• During my mat leave I started contributing to an online forum and I received a cease and desist from the company’s lawyers. Then ensued three months of letters, union discussions, hearings and total anxiety.
• Four women on maternity from the same company had three months of maternity leave consumed with an over-the-top reaction to us continuing professional development.

I would never question an employer’s right to ask questions of an employee’s activities if they suspected any kind of breach of contract. However, standard procedure dictates that we should have received an email/call from our line manager (which would have immediately resolved the misunderstanding that we were working on maternity leave or anything else). I only received an intimidating letter from a group of lawyers accusing me of a list of offenses that made me feel ashamed and small.

The layers to my frustration are hard to explain. On the one hand, a few other colleagues had recently felt pushed out of their roles and after a re-structuring of the company, being part of the ‘old crowd’ gives you a feeling of paranoia that you have a red dot trained on your back. That factor is not related to pregnancy. Having said that, it was only since I became pregnant that I felt like I was not valued as a member of staff. I raised each of my concerns with management as they happened informally and I was repeatedly told that I’d misinterpreted things or they refused to give a straight answer. For example, apparently it’s protocol to ask what type of sick leave your on (something I never had to ask when covering managerial duties); some were told about my pregnancy over lunch, another wasn’t corrected when he speculated about my doctor’s appointment; the job advertised wasn’t exactly the same and when I return there will in fact, contrary to all other information, be enough work for twice the number of permanent staff (needless to say this did not come to fruition).

Of course they won’t say ‘It’s because you’re pregnant.’

So approaching mat leave, I was already feeling pushed out and considering not going back. Then the lawyer’s letter arrived and they came down on us like a sledgehammer on a peanut. I had done something creative related to my sector but not for them, for free, thinking it reflected well on them, as I am clearly associated with them and would in fact contribute to my professional development in their eyes. As though they’d be impressed I had done more than ‘just raise a child’ in my nine months off. How naïve and wrong.

Luckily I was in the union. Their intervention downgraded ‘gross’ to ‘mis’conduct and potential dismissal to written warnings after pointing out the ludicrous nature of how heavy-handed they had been. But the employer has never had to answer any errors on their part in terms of their total mishandling of their own procedure and taking up a third of my maternity leave by making a mountain out of a molehill. In order to take it further, myself/the group of us had to have raised a grievance. And here is the beautiful irony of the situation: to raise a grievance for the company taking time away from our maternity leave, takes even more time. And to what end? I could never be given that time back. To illustrate, I would drive my daughter to my partner’s work so he could look after her during his lunch hour in order to free me up to make phone calls/answer emails. The correspondence was constant and the time you don’t have as a new parent is one thing, the brain space and energy is another.

After the company had downgraded the investigation, the union asked if I wanted to look into constructive dismissal. Wait, let me spend hours collating 18 months worth of emails and exchanges. Hours spent with a baby rightfully demanding your attention sitting in a house of chaos after averaging bursts of 3-4 hours sleep a night; even if your baby sleeps, you cannot because of the stress this is causing. To then be told that cumulatively, it looks bad for the employer. BUT because I didn’t raise grievances when any of the bullet-pointed issues happened, it won’t stand up in trial. So now it will look like I’m pulling stuff out of the bag as I want to leave (I had just resigned as my nine months was approaching. I didn’t want to go back and work in an atmosphere where I felt I was being monitored outside of work).

At this point I just wanted to cut ties, so I did, rationalising that I’d been thinking of leaving anyway, the union had pushed me to look into constructive dismissal and I didn’t have the energy to pursue it. However, now I can see that the reason I’d been thinking of leaving is because I’d been feeling pushed out. Since I became pregnant. It’s like I was totally replaceable and that my line manager had no interest in retaining me as a member of staff. My letter of resignation was accepted without discussion or protest, my manager said he was happy to discuss any reasons I had for leaving but wouldn’t explain any of the ones outlined at the start of this post, which were my only reasons for leaving. I don’t necessarily think that the fact that all senior management are male in my old workplace is the reason I experienced what I did but there were definitely individuals who totally dismissed my issues as ‘misinterpretations’ and that I was ‘oversensitive’. This is without the comments made to colleagues that in all likelihood, I wouldn’t come back from maternity leave, or that I shouldn’t have been made a senior member of staff. I couldn’t use second-hand information to show discrimination and yet they did. I was sent a letter from their lawyer’s after a colleague told someone more senior that I had been posting online.

I chose to resign and enjoy the rest of my time with my baby. Plus, pursuing a grievance could have meant me returning to work as my nine months were almost up. It was easier for me to cut ties and better for my health to do so. I felt angry for a while until I emailed a few colleagues to say ‘I won’t be coming back after mat leave/it was great working with you/thanks for the opportunities’ etc. and those who had been involved in the shambles of investigating us all replied immediately and acknowledged… nothing. I felt relieved to have taken the high road and would like to think no one intended their actions to spiral into the legal debacle that it did. I also felt sad though. Sad that in a company full of men, no one had the balls to either aplogise for their part in it or to have stood up for us to senior management. I received a few ‘off the record’ messages saying how disgustedly I’d been treated but whilst I asked many times who was culpable for the investigation process/how I’d been treated, the ambiguous answer of ‘the organisation’ was all I could get. This many-headed beast where the finger always points to whomever you’re not talking to.

I genuinely thought that 18 months ago, it would be the cost of childcare that would dictate how much or whether I could go back to my old company. It turns out that as my bump grew, there was less and less space for me. As my ‘ties’ were literally cut from my new-born, my employer maximised an opportunity to irrevocably sever our professional ties.

I’m a doer, I try and achieve when I should be kicking back and enjoying the now but even I cannot believe that a new parent is able face the challenge of taking an employer to task over harassment during maternity leave or discrimination during pregnancy. Despite union lawyers being as helpful as they were for me, it all takes time and energy, two commodities lacking in the first year parenthood. It also seems to me that, unless you have the foresight to raise grievances over every small thing (potentially damaging job progression, let’s face it), it’s nigh impossible to prove cumulative issues. I was naïve and tried to address things casually as they happened.

I don’t want to be a cynical person and assume I’m being treated differently because of my gender or child-rearing age. I felt my approach of ‘hey, this really looks like you’ve done it because I’m pregnant’ or ‘you can’t disclose that information/ask me that question’ would be enough but I was wrong. What seems endemic in my old company is a mentality of head-in-the-sand /it wasn’t me, where everyone carries a secret business card saying: ‘I’m not sexist but I won’t stand up for female co-workers publically’. Even if they discriminated against me without malicious intent, they still did it. I argued that my actions during maternity leave had no malicious intent behind them and I never meant to damage the company’s reputation and yet they continued to pursue misconduct. They said there was no malicious intent behind any incidents that occurred during my pregnancy and yet I don’t have the resources, financial, time or energy to pursue them back.

If someone argued that perhaps I don’t have the balls to fight them back, when I should for the bigger issue here, I’d say I can’t battle them and a one-year old who constantly challenges me and fights me on sleep, food, dressing and running before she can walk. At least she appreciates me and will grow up. Can I tell a company that an ingrained mentality of women being worth less in the workplace once they are of a child-rearing age is immature and they need to grow up? I can’t mother them too, I’m exhausted from being so upset about it; they have won that battle.


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