F equals for women on the rise

Joeli Brearley


Posted on April 19 2017


Today, we sit down with Joeli Bearley, founder and chief executive of Pregnant Then Screwed, a platform and campaign  to end pregnancy and maternity discrimination. Here's Joeli's story, what led to her starting the campaign and why it is important to families and businesses alike:

Newnham: What were you like growing up? Who/what inspired you? 
Brearley: I have always been stubborn, opinionated and a bit of a tomboy. When I was 13, my dad came into some money so we moved from our tiny cottage in Halifax and from my comprehensive school to a much larger house and an all girls private school in a rather plush part of West Yorkshire. I think that experience had quite a profound impact on me; it had an affect on my confidence in a negative way as I suddenly became an outsider but it allowed me to experience two different lifestyles, two different education systems. I suppose it was interesting in an anthropological sort of way.

My dad owned what became a very successful business; he was rarely around and my parents relationship was strained and unhappy. My mum played the very traditional caring role while my dad was the breadwinner. My mum adored my sister and I and loved being a mum but you could always tell she wanted more, she was restless. My father had no patience for children, he thrived off the thrill of being an important business man and regularly succumbed to the female attention that produced. They had completely different lives, but neither were happy. My father regrets his behaviour and regrets not spending more time with us and (though she would never say it) I think my mum laments the career she never had. Before she got married she was an artist but she gave it all up to play the role that was expected of her. 

In terms of influences, Micheal Jackson and Kurt Cobain were probably my key influences when I was younger; they made me happy and gave me solace. I also read Maya Angelou - I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when I was 16 and that blew my mind. I was always interested in injustice but I was never interested in gender inequality until I experienced it so acutely.

Newnham: What is your background and career to date?
Brearley: Before I gave it all up to concentrate on Pregnant Then Screwed, I worked in the grey area between art and technology. My speciality was developing innovation processes for cultural organisations. I ran my own company called The CultureCode Initiative before I had my first child. I was also managing projects at FutureEverything (an Innovation Lab for digital culture) until six weeks ago.

Newnham: What led to you starting pregnant then screwed and what's your mission?
Brearley: When I was four months pregnant with my first child I was running a large project for a charity in the North East of England. It was a project I had designed and secured the funding for. When I discovered I was pregnant, I planned everything meticulously to ensure there would be no problems for my employer. I informed them by email and laid out the detailed plan and asked that we discuss it to make sure they were happy. The next day, they sacked me by voicemail. 

Two days later I found out I was having a high risk pregnancy, I could go into labour at any point and If I had, the baby would have died. I was pregnant, unwell and unemployed, I have never been so scared. I couldn’t take my employer to tribunal as the stress would have been too much and it risked the health of me and the baby. When this happened to me, I thought I was the only person in the world that had experienced such callous treatment but when I attended parent groups and spoke to other mums I discovered that this was happening all the time.

Women are being sacked, made redundant, demoted, bullied and harassed, all for daring to want both a family and a career. If you have never experienced pregnancy or maternity discrimination, it is impossible to understand the effect it has on your mental health. For so many women the experience never leaves them, it crushes their confidence and puts the final nail in the career coffin. I truly believe that if we can stop pregnancy and maternity discrimination then we will see women’s careers sore and ,in turn, the economy will improve, businesses will succeed and wellbeing will increase. 

The mission of Pregnant Then Screwed is to protect and support women who encounter pregnancy and maternity discrimination, but also to affect government policy and business practice globally so that we stop motherhood affecting a woman’s ability to progress her career, if that is what she wants. We want mothers to be economically empowered and we want fathers to feel able to spend more time being a dad. It is about strengthening families, strengthening the economy and empowering women.

Newnham: Why do the crowdfunding campaign and what do you hope to achieve as a result of it?
Brearley: We have been operating for two years with no income whatsoever, whilst caring for young children and managing a career. The demand for our services is now so great that we couldn’t continue working like this, so I had to make a choice between my job and Pregnant Then Screwed (PTS). I care so deeply about what we have achieved that I quit my job a few weeks ago.

The crowdfunder will allow us to continue running our key services - which are a free legal advice line, the website which acts as a safe space for women to tell their stories of discrimination anonymously, and the mentor programme which pairs up women who are about to take legal action against an employer with women who have been through an employment tribunal. Simultaneously, this money will give us the breathing space we need to work out a more sustainable funding model for PTS.

Newnham: What do you think can be done to make the workplace more accommodating to parents? What solutions would you like to see in the next 5 years?
Brearley: (i) All jobs to be advertised as part-time/flexible - unless there is a valid business reason for them not to be. 

The lack of part-time jobs and flexible working is a real killer for women. When you have a baby, many parents do not want to return to work full time. It is extortionately expensive, but it can just feel too much for so many parents.

For many, they will see their new baby for less than one hour a day if they are working full time and that is hard. Once children go to school then it is also really tough coordinating childcare around school times and holidays. As childcare tends to fall on the mother still, then it is usually the woman that has to make tough choices if their employer is unwilling to offer them part time or flexible working. Yet, it makes no sense for companies to not offer part time or flexible working in most industries. In Sweden, they have recently implemented a six hour working day and they have seen a productivity increase. 

(ii) Subsidised, means tested childcare available for babies and children from 3 months old

Child care in the UK is the most expensive in the world! This means that for many women it is prohibitively expensive and makes no financial sense to return to work. Offering subsidized childcare is about giving women choices. 

(iii) Paid paternity leave. Childcare tends to be done by the mother, whilst breadwinning tends to be done by the father. Until we have equality in the home, we will never have equality in the workplace. Although we now have shared parental leave, it is still not equal and still favours the mother staying at home with the child.

Also, due to the gender pay gap, fathers are likely to be paid more than mothers so it doesn’t make much financial sense for the mother to return to work and the father to stay at home. We are also battling against deeply entrenched gender stereotypes. The only way to redress the balance therefore is to incentivize fathers taking time out to care for their children. We would like to see fathers accessing three months paid paternity leave on a use it or lose it basis, and pay needs to be comparable to salary. 

(iv) Extending the time limit to take a case of pregnancy or maternity discrimination to tribunal to (at least) six months. We have been campaigning for this for a few months now. Our petition has been signed by 54,000 people and it has been raised as an Early Day motion in parliament (https://www.change.org/p/greg-clark-mp-give-new-and-expectant-mothers-six-months-to-pursue-discrimination-claims / https://www.parliament.uk/edm/2016-17/1084)

(v) Abolish tribunal fees. It costs £1,200 to take a case to tribunal, this does not include costs for legal representation. Who has that kind of money when you are pregnant or on maternity leave? This makes access to justice impossible for many women. 

Newnham: If you could go back in time to the start of your career, what advice if any, would you offer an younger Joeli?
Brearley: When I was younger, I lacked the confidence in my own ability that I have now. I wasn’t comfortable with public speaking and I rarely spoke up in meetings. Many women lack confidence in themselves and this can hold them back from fulfilling their potential.

The experience of being sacked because I was pregnant opened my eyes to a whole world of sexism and discrimination I never knew existed before. It made me see the world, and my place in it, in a very different way. This got me interested in feminism and I have since become a little obsessed with how women (and men!) are held back by patriarchy.

I realised that as women we are almost expected to stay quiet, and that when we speak up we are often judged negatively by others – we are seen as bossy or controlling, whereas men are seen as leaders. Women tend to be less confident about their own abilities, yet so much research shows that when companies empower women and have a diverse workforce they are more successful. Women make excellent leaders and we should not let society tell us otherwise.

My confidence came from the realisation that I am smart, that I do have worthwhile things to say and that companies I work for, and with, will benefit from my experience and skills. Most women work below their level of competence for many reasons (read the Paula Principle). We need to stop undervaluing ourselves and our abilities.


Thanks to Mills from ustwo for the intro.

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