Last week I spoke at the Gender Pay Gap Conference. I was there to share my story about maternity discrimination and the lack of work opportunities as a young parent. Being sat amongst CEO's of charities and companies was definitely intimidating. But I had one of my close friends Sophie on the same panel as me and Lydia from Young Women's Trust was there to cheer us on.
The conference was set up by the Fawcett Society, they have been striving for women's equality for over 150 years and it was an honour to share the stage with so many inspiring people. I wanted to share my speech, especially with the latest report released from the CBI that states employers should be more accommodating and flexible.
Pregnancy and maternity leave should be a time to relax and prepare for your baby, a time to bond with your child. But pregnancy and maternity leave isn’t like that for a large portion of young women. Instead it’s can be a time of discrimination, uncertainty and worry about being left behind and unable to move forward in work – something which I know all too well.
Telling my employer was a tense moment. Working in a male dominated sales environment I was already at a disadvantage. But as soon as I added a pregnancy to the mix I felt vulnerable, as if I had a walking target on my back and they were waiting to shoot me out the door.
Being pregnant and working was overwhelming and exhausting. I didn’t feel as though I was respected as a member of the team and some male colleagues were allowed to leer at me and make snide remarks about my situation. To the world it might have been seen as ‘workplace banter’ but in reality it hurt to hear how some of my peers thought I was ruining my life.
Whilst on maternity leave, I attempted to reach out to my employer for some keep in touch days. Despite the negativity around my pregnancy in the workplace, I needed to return and wanted to work. I thought I was a valuable member of the team, no matter what was happening in my personal life.
When I reached the end of my maternity leave I reached out to my employer to enquire about flexible working. I was not only returning to work, but also to university so needed to return to my old shifts. Being aware that flexible working isn’t always available, I was open to working with them to find a happy medium. I was then told they had no job for me, but I could work in another store if I had to.
A lot of attitudes had changed in the 9 months I had been off. I was made well aware that they weren’t going to welcome me back with open arms with a manager stating that I should ‘stay at home with my child on benefits like all other teen mums’. At that moment I felt worthless, I felt that all my contributions to the team and company were redundant as I was now a mother. That because I had chosen to bring up my child, I couldn’t work for the company too.
At the time I thought my experience was normal. But on retrospect I realise that no one should be left to feel worthless because they had a baby. Whilst my story may seem extreme, it is unfortunately the norm for many new mothers.
There needs to be a culture shift starting with employers. Women should be encouraged to keep in touch with their employers, not only does it strengthen the bond between employee and job, but it also keeps the bridge of communication open. It allows mothers on maternity leave to feel as though they are still a part of the team.
Flexible working should also be welcomed. Despite it being a legal right, Digital Mums recently found in their Work That Works report that 60% of mums don’t have access to flexible working in their jobs. Having a flexible working employee not only means that an employer is retaining those important skills they have trained their staff in, it also proves to their staff that they believe in them and are willing to work with them to keep them as an employee.
Being a young parent looking for work, I’ve often found that jobs I’ve ended up in have led to no opportunities of progression or promotion. Potential employers have dismissed and judged me, expecting me to put work second when I’m in a role. I’ve watched countless childless colleagues surpass me and gain promotions, when I am just as qualified for the role offered. Being a parent should not be a reason to hold a young person back.
My experience isn’t unusual. Earlier this year the TUC found that women who had taken a career break to have children before their 33rd birthday were paid 15% less than other women. The Institute for Fiscal Studies also discovered that when women reduce their work to 20 hours or less per week, they see their wage growth slow down over time.
I’m not trying to say that young parents should be pitied and handed life on a silver platter. We are just as much of an asset as any other employee. Whether we need flexible working, mentoring or keep in touch days, employers should feel encouraged to work with young mums to ensure they are providing a well-balanced and positive working environment, so that we can progress in our careers and not feel stuck.