Joeli Brearley is founder of the project and campaign Pregnant Then Screwed, a place for women to tell their stories of pregnancy and maternity discrimination to expose this systemic problem and make a case for recognition, change and respect. She writes about pregnancy and maternity discrimination as well feminism, technology and art. Brearley worked as a freelance creative producer, project manager and innovation specialist based in Manchester before founding Pregnant Then Screwed.
Why did you start Pregnant Then Screwed?
I started Pregnant Then Screwed because when I was four months pregnant I was sacked by my employer. I was sacked because I was pregnant. They gave me the contract, I signed the contract, then I told them that I was pregnant and two days later they said my contract had been rescinded and that I needed to hand everything over. When it happened I was really shocked and really hurt. I thought I had known them well and I couldn’t actually believe people would behave like that. It felt like a real kick in the teeth and a personal attack.
So I decided I wanted to do something about it. I looked for advice and I just couldn’t find it. I ended up employing a solicitor, who was rubbish. It was £300 just to send a letter to them, and that came at a time when I didn’t have any money, so I just dropped it. I couldn’t fight it by myself and I didn’t have the energy. But it ate at me everyday — I thought about it all the time. I couldn’t take the injustice and the discrimination I had faced that had just been left undealt with. Later I met many mums with the same issues, some even worse off than me, who needed a place to tell their stories. It was a confidence booster just to hear that other women had this problem, so I came up with this idea of an anonymous website.
After I had my baby I threw together a little website, put my story on it along with several of my closer friends who also went through discrimination. The site works because it’s anonymous; these really big dramatic things happen to women and they have nowhere to share their stories. They’re effectively silenced because if you talk publicly about it you’re branded a “troublemaker,” especially if you work in a small sector. Or you go to tribunal, you sign a non-disclosure contract so you legally can’t talk about it, or you work for the same employer and can’t say anything.
Women just feel so protective over themselves professionally and are too scared to talk about it. So sharing their stories on the site is a really cathartic way to say, “this is what happened to me.” It gives other women support; by just reading others’ stories it gives them confidence, knowing that women have survived a similar experience. It also means that the media can see the human side of this issue. There are lots of statistics regarding discrimination against pregnant women, but seeing the stories of real people gives this problem a face.
Now that we have a community that has rallied around us we thought, what else can we do? We now have a free legal advice line where you can get about an hour’s worth of free advice having to do with any topic dealing with discrimination and we know it’s really high quality, professional advice.
We’ve also just set up a mentor program for women going through tribunal. We pair women who are about to go, or are going, through tribunal with women who already have, because we know very few women actually make it through the process. It’s very stressful, you’re vulnerable — either pregnant or just had a baby — and you need all the support you can get. That’s why we’ve come up with this buddy system where you can support each other, which has been really effective and we’ve had really positive feedback on that.
How has opening the conversation up to anonymous entries gone? What has the impact been so far?
We’ve received over 500 stories in the just over a year that the site has been up — which is astounding. I’ve had lots of women tell me that the project has given them strength to challenge discriminatory behavior, which is really what we wanted to come out of it. We wanted to be able to give comfort to women but also give them the tools so they feel that they can challenge what’s happening to them. I think the one of the really important effects of the project has been giving women confidence to deal with this situation when it happens.
The other significant impact we’ve seen is the immense awareness we’ve raised around the issue. We’ve had an unbelievable amount of media coverage surrounding the project. I hope that this media coverage is making companies think about how they treat women and it helps them think about the positive affect their organization can have if they look after the pregnant members of their staff.
How has your background in the digital arts prepared you for running a social change campaign like this?
I actually haven’t had very many skills transfer over, but my background enabled me to have these networks of skilled people, and then through these networks I was able to solve the problems that I needed to. It’s been amazing, the amount of people who have stepped forward to help because they understand that it is a real problem. Without them, the project wouldn’t exist.
It’s been amazing, the amount of people who have stepped forward to help because they understand that it is a real problem. Without them, the project wouldn’t exist.
Almost 80% of people we surveyed in the film industry have been negatively impacted by their parenting and caring responsibilities. Have you seen this issue across all industries? Is the discrimination seen in certain ones more than others?
It’s definitely an issue everywhere, and not everyone specifies their area, but the arts are absolutely affected by discrimination. The Equality and Human Rights Commission actually did a study and the arts were the worst for the number of women reporting that their careers had been negatively affected, as the industry is so tight and they don’t want to cause trouble.
What’s the next step for Pregnant Then Screwed?
We’re hoping to make a documentary, so I’ve been planning what that would look like. I’ve also been talking for a long time about writing a book. We would like to branch out into other countries. We’re in America and Spain and the UK so far, eventually we’d like to be all over the world, but we’ll take it step by step. Australia will probably be next.
We are expanding into some legislation work too. Today I’m going to Westminster to talk to some MP’s to hopefully influence policy and policy changes. There is a big project going on right now in Westminster looking at why this problem is so vast. We’re also hoping to do some events to increase the community atmosphere the site has started, and get some funding to expand our mentoring program for women going through tribunals.
What can people do the help this issue? Are there lines of actions that both people directly affected by this, as well as allies can follow?
We’d love as many volunteers as possible. Anyone with skills that they think could contribute to the project are welcome to offer their services, we’re always looking for more help. Administrators, marketers, and public relations people would all be super helpful.
But for the most part we just need people to shout. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook and interact with us. The more we shout about these problems, the more attention we gather, the more pressure will be put on employers and the government to make changes that will have a positive effect. We need anyone interested to put a loudspeaker next to the stories we share and say this is a real problem.
We have to make the world realize that you can be a really good mother and still be really good at your job.
Any final advice?
If anyone is experiencing discrimination, please call our advice line. They really will help. And just make sure that you don’t let your problem drop, that you do something about it. You shouldn’t suffer in silence and if this happens to you, you should know that you have support and a community who have shared your experiences. It is worth challenging it and it is worth fighting. We have to make the world realize that you can be a really good mother and still be really good at your job.