Carly Lewis-Oduntan lost her job – then discovered she was pregnant. Here’s what happened
Words Carly Lewis-Oduntan
Job interviews can be daunting and anxiety-inducing at the best of times. If you’re pregnant, they can cause worry, tension and fear so palpable that it can be hard to disguise.
Despite more of an emphasis being put on family friendly policies in the workplace, the fact remains that pregnancy and maternity discrimination – as it’s defined in the Equality Act 2010 – is still widespread. Stories of expectant mothers being either covertly pushed out of jobs or suddenly sacked for no legitimate reason are all too common, and countless employers have been exposed for their hostile attitudes towards women with kids. So what hope do you really have if you’re expecting a baby and looking for work?
According to recent statistics, very little. A survey conducted by YouGov on behalf of the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that out of 1,106 senior decision makers in business, 59% said that they think women should have to disclose whether or not they’re pregnant during the recruitment process. Almost half agreed that it’s reasonable to ask women if they have young children during the recruitment process, while around a third of private sector employers think it’s okay to ask women about their plans to start a family when recruiting.
Being pregnant meant that I was desperate to land a new role, which lead to heightened nerves, angst and self-doubt, all of which affected my performance during interviews.
It’s attitudes like this that made my own experiences of interviewing while pregnant so stressful. After losing my job and discovering I was pregnant almost immediately afterwards, I felt like I had suddenly been plunged into a nightmare scenario. Driven by what must have been pure survival instinct, I was determined to find work as quickly as possible. But despite the volume and pace at which I was sending out applications, I constantly battled with whether or not I’d actually tell an employer I was pregnant, were I lucky enough to receive an offer.
I was well within my rights to say nothing. UK law dictates that you don’t have to let your employer know you’re pregnant until 15 weeks before your due date. However, being pregnant meant that I was desperate to land a new role, which lead to heightened nerves, angst and self-doubt, all of which affected my performance during interviews.
By the time I was four months pregnant, and having attended just as many interviews, hiding my bump was becoming more difficult. With yet another interview to prepare for, I decided it was highly unlikely that they would offer me a job if I was visibly pregnant. I remember trying on different outfit options before settling on a voluminous cream blouse. At the end of the interview, which went fairly well, one woman on the panel asked if there was anything I’d like to tell them. “No,” I said. “Nothing.”
The narrative around pregnancy is that it’s a massive burden to businesses and creates enormous problems for employers – when actually, it’s nowhere near as big a problem as it’s made out to be.
I never ended up securing a job before I had my baby, so there’s no way of knowing if I’d have been subjected to the discrimination that so many others, like Kam Kaur, have experienced when they came clean. “I was about three months pregnant,” says Kaur. “I’d got on really well with the lady who was interviewing me and she verbally offered me the job. I felt the decent thing to do was to tell her I was pregnant, but that I intended to come back to work after I’d had the baby. But once I told them, they said they could no longer offer me the job because they were a PR company and wanted continuity with their clients, so they basically took it away from me.
“It was a real shock but I didn’t have an offer in writing so I didn’t know if there was anything I could do legally. And also when you’re three months pregnant you don’t want to take on something like that.”
Joeli Brearley is the creator of Pregnant Then Screwed, a website that allows mothers to anonymously share their stories of pregnancy and maternity discrimination. Brearley founded the site in 2015, after she was fired the day after telling her boss she was pregnant. “I had that problem of thinking, what do I do now? Because I’m four months pregnant… Do I tell them if I go for an interview or do I hide it? It’s terrifying.”
She continues: “The reason why there’s so much discrimination that occurs at the point when a women is pregnant, is because the narrative around pregnancy is that it’s a massive burden to businesses and creates enormous problems for employers – when actually, it’s nowhere near as big a problem as it’s made out to be.”
Mandy Garner is Editor at Workingmums.co.uk, which was originally set up by Gillian Nissim to advertise flexible job opportunities for mothers. “I mean what are women supposed to do if they’re pregnant and find themselves having lost their job?” she asks. “Are they supposed to not work until they have the baby? It’s just not realistic.
“Employers complain about women getting pregnant and having to receive maternity pay, but if somebody’s already pregnant they’re not going to have to pay them anything. It’s about employers seeing people as long term investments and seeing the potential when they’re hiring.”
Despite the depressing reality of pregnancy and maternity discrimination, organisations and campaigns like Pregnant Then Screwed, Workingmums.co.uk, Maternity Action and the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Working Forward initiative are all working towards creating positive change and influencing employers’ attitudes towards pregnant women and new mums.
Brearley says, “What we’re doing at the minute is tinkering around the edges, but really the whole industry needs a massive shakeup. It’s about that conscious and unconscious bias that exists and trying to change that culture and have a societal shift in the way we view women in the workplace.”
Thankfully, I’m now building a freelance career that allows me to juggle the work I love with my child. But I’m more than aware many women won’t have that option, and sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I worked in a less flexible industry. Frankly, attitudes cannot change fast enough for the hordes of women currently sitting in interviews, wearing a voluminous blouse.