Ed’s Note: Rhonda Brighton-Hall received hundreds of emails and notes after she posted the below open letter to CEOs on LinkedIn in December last year, and says she’s since heard numerous stories of pregnancy discrimination happening just as she wrote it – women being made ‘redundant’ in their final weeks of pregnancy or in the month prior to their return.
As Rhonda told us yesterday, the notes come from people who are saying ‘it happened to me’ or to ‘my sister’ or to ‘my friend’ or ‘my partner. She suggests there would be few people who don’t know someone who has experienced this.
It makes us just as mad as it makes Rhonda, and we want it to stop.
Please stop firing pregnant women (and women just before they return from Maternity Leave). Or at least use your considerable organisational power to stop others from doing it on your watch.
It is an incredibly shabby way to treat people. It damages our shared future.
Oh, and it’s against the law.
Every week for the last year three things have consistently happened.
Once a week a woman has called me and said “Can you help me? I am 7 (or even 8) months pregnant and I’ve just been made redundant”.
And at least once a week I read about the amazing commitment of corporations to diversity, as CEOs speak about their personal leadership of this agenda in their companies.
And, in every one of those weeks I’ve sat and wondered when these two issues will collide.
Let’s start with the issue.
It seems that many women, in one of two circumstances, are being made unexpectedly ‘redundant’.
In the first circumstance, they are in the late stages of their pregnancy. At seven or eight months pregnant and looking forward to their baby’s imminent arrival. They are planning their leave and preparing a handover to the person taking their spot for the next few months or even a year. Then, they notice some odd conversations between people around them. Whispers and closed doors. Then they are called in and told “We’re restructuring, and unfortunately, your role is redundant. Bizarrely, your role is the only one”.
In the second circumstance, they are humming along on Maternity Leave and enjoying their time with their family, sometimes conflicted about the return to work, often looking forward to getting back. They get a call from their boss, (often a new one, as ‘things have changed since you’ve been away’) and they pop into work to talk about their return. As it turns out, things have changed more than they knew and their role is no longer available. Miraculously, the person who was filling in for their Maternity Leave has been able to reshape the job and has survived the restructure.
Of course, these examples sound absurd, sarcastic even, but they are EXACTLY how it goes down. Unabashed law breaking, with barely even a sentence to disguise it.
So what is the law?
Under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, it is unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of pregnancy or potential pregnancy.
The law covers recruitment, promotion, salary and other work related benefits.
In the 1998 white paper, it even went so far as to describe it as “a right not a privilege”.
And finally, an employee is entitled to return to the position she held prior to commencing leave or to a comparable position if her original job has ceased to exist.
The law is clear, unambiguous, and fair. It is intended to protect the employment rights of the 70+% of Australian women who go through pregnancy.
All of the information is easily accessible, sitting neatly on the websites of both the Human Rights Commission and the Fair Work Ombudsman.
So, when these women call and say “Help me”, why doesn’t a simple phone call rectify the situation? “Excuse me, you seem to have blatantly broken the law. Can you please reemploy this pregnant woman (or woman returning from Maternity Leave) so we can all move on with our lives”.
Well, there are two issues.
Firstly, companies seem to feel strangely bullet proof around the issue.
And secondly, they usually are.
The companies are relying on women not to fight and sadly, that’s an effective strategy.
The women on the end of the phone, or across the coffee table drinking tea, are usually shocked, embarrassed, teary, worried about the impact on their mental health and the physical well-being of their baby. They don’t want to fight a giant legal case a month before their baby is born.
They have a real fear that if they do fight, they will be deemed ‘unemployable’. A troublemaker, who ‘went legal’ instead of being a good mum and being calm and happy.
They simply don’t want their family to be front page media fodder in the battle to bring this issue to the fore. Instead they settle for a slightly enhanced version of redundancy (a few dollars of ‘go away’ money on top of the usual package).
So, CEOs, here’s my plea.
I’m begging you to stop allowing pregnant women to be sacked on your watch.
I could talk commercially, about losing great people, important skills, long term IP, and company loyalty. I could talk ethics and the law. I could talk about the devastating impact on the mental and financial wellbeing of each woman (and her family) that this happens to. I won’t, as I’m sure you’re familiar with all of this. Instead, I appeal to your personal integrity – If you say you’re supporting diversity, this one is almost certainly flying under your radar. As it does, you’re losing personal and organisational credibility in every mother’s group, family BBQ and dinner table where this is discussed.
We all know that sooner or later, one of those women on the end of the phone, or across the coffee table, will say “Happy to be front page news!”. As they do, corporate reputations will crumble.
Until then, it’s down to each CEO checking whether this is happening on your watch. Get the stats, review the examples, and call it to a stop.
Let’s make 2017 the year that this just stops happening.
Enough is enough.
N.B. Point 6 from the Human Rights Commission Fact Sheet –
“A massive 54% of women in one study believed that their careers have been affected by taking maternity leave. A further 44.1% say their salaries stall, 30.4% believe their careers take a backward step and 29.9% say they sacrificed their careers when they gave birth”.
Based on the four mother’s group we sent this blog to in draft, and the many women we’ve spoken to in the last year, we’d suggest that’s a gross underestimation of the issue.
Rhonda Brighton-Hall is founder and CEO of MWAH, Making Work Absolutely Human.