December 13, 2005 was a really important date for me: It was my Dad’s 60th birthday, the day I had my 12-week scan in my first pregnancy, and also the day I decided to break it to my boss Stephan that I was going to have a baby.
Emboldened by the fact that the scan went well, when I was back in the office, I quietly asked Stephan for a quick word. At the time I was a freelance presenter on a quiz TV channel — under no contract — and I was horribly aware that at any stage they could simply decide not to book me again. So it was with immense trepidation that I told him that I was going to have a baby. After congratulating me, he stated that his boss and the head of the company, Agnetha, didn’t like children nor did she like seeing pregnant women onscreen. He said, “She prefers animals to kids.” Stephan confided that he was leaving his job in March and told me I would then be a “sitting duck.” I was really upset; would I lose my job simply for being pregnant?
Turns out I was far from alone. According to a national survey of pregnancy at work published in 2011, up to 30 percent of women feel they have been treated unfairly during pregnancy. Five percent of women reported their pregnancies had led to dismissal and others reported feeling that they had lost out on an increase in salary, bonuses, or promotions and had endured unpleasant comments from managers and/or co-workers. Many had even been discouraged from attending prenatal appointments during work hours.
In the UK, pregnant employees have legal rights: paid time off for prenatal care, maternity leave, maternity pay, and protection against unfair treatment, discrimination, or dismissal. (In the US, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has similar guidelines against discrimination). Employers can’t change a pregnant employee’s contract terms and conditions without agreement; if they do they are in breach of contract. However, I worked as a freelance presenter, so all my company had to do was say that when I was onscreen, they weren’t getting as many callers and viewers, and I was out. They could easily manipulate their own secret statistics to back up this claim, and I had no leg to stand on.
In my second trimester, just before Stephan left, he sent around the following email:
It becomes more and more obvious that Suzanne is expecting. I think it’s great and I don’t have a problem with it at all. But some others might have. That’s why I would like you to do the following:
Whenever you’re on Shift with Suzanne please make sure (by watching and briefing vision mixer and camera op) that we have tighter shots (head, shoulders etc.) most of the time. If you need Suzanne in full shot: No problem but just have it as long as it’s necessary for the show. I don’t want to make a fuss about it. This is more an informal recommendation than an official announcement.
Thanks for your support.
I was devastated! I assumed that any day Agnetha would see my glowing, pregnant face onscreen and immediately axe me, no matter how much my boss Stephan had tried to “protect” me. I carried a dictaphone to work every day, determined to record any meeting that might be sprung on me. To say I was stressed was an understatement. As it happened, Agnetha did notice my pregnancy and said she had no issue with my bump being onscreen. Other than making me sign a disclaimer that should I go into labor while on the studio floor, they weren’t liable, my company couldn’t have been nicer about the pregnancy. However, this didn’t stop me from living in fear the second I announced it.
It is astounding that even with anti-discrimination laws in place, many women still feel their pregnancy negatively impacted their careers. I know personally two women who felt that they were looked over for promotions as their bosses knew they were about to go on maternity leave, and I know another two women who were made redundant while on maternity leave.
Companies are clever to cover up their prejudices by glossing over the pregnancy/maternity leave and making the dismissal/redundancy about the woman not being “up to the job” or a “company reshuffle.” It therefore isn’t surprising when chatting to friends that they all felt awkward or even embarrassed to tell their employers they were having a baby. A quick email around to my friends and one commented, “The worst part was the first trimester — I was throwing up all day every day and trying to hide the fact that I was pregnant. The stress of hiding my pregnancy was almost worse than the sickness!”
An article this week in The Irish Times points out that pregnancy is a full-time job in itself. The last thing a woman should feel during the most important time of her life is stressed, anxious, or fearful about losing her job or being demoted. We shouldn’t tolerate backstabbing or snide comments when we have to go to prenatal appointments or work from home because our ankles are swollen to the size of a wrestler’s. In this day and age, it is tragic that almost 1 in 3 women feel they were unfairly treated during their pregnancy, when having a baby is the most normal, natural thing in the world. It’s about time society realized this.
Did it happen to you? Were you afraid to break the news you were pregnant to your office, or worse, did you lose your job because of it?
Photo courtesy of Suzanne JanneseMore On