For most women working through pregnancy, the biggest difficulties faced are proximity to the bathroom and squeezing into appropriate work wear.
But, shockingly, for one third of women in Ireland, their experience of pregnancy in the workplace has been one of discrimination and bullying.
Taryn de Vere hears from two women who have experienced pregnancy discrimination firsthand.
Being pregnant in the workplace turned Dublin woman Clodagh’s* “dream job” into a nightmare. Prior to becoming pregnant Clodagh had an excellent relationship with her boss and she felt appreciated and valued as an employee.
“My boss couldn’t sing my praises highly enough, I had experience to gain but he could see how hard I was working and all I was bringing to the role. He called our team ‘the dream team’ and everyone’s voice was listened to at team meetings. It was unbelievable. I didn’t think such places existed. Until I told him I was pregnant.”
Clodagh says her boss immediately behaved differently with her. Within days of disclosing the pregnancy she was summoned to the office and was told that her work was “not up to scratch, that I didn’t hold myself to the same standards I held everyone else to, that I wasn’t doing it right.”
Clodagh was confused as she had not changed anything in her working life.
“When I asked what I was doing wrong he refused to tell me, said that he wasn’t going to sit there and tell me what I had to change. This went on for weeks.”
The stressful change of atmosphere in her workplace took its toll on Clodagh’s heath and she ended up taking sick leave.
He said that my pregnancy affected the whole team and it was just going to get worse
When she was back at work Clodagh’s boss called her in for a meeting. “He said that my pregnancy affected the whole team and it was just going to get worse.”
Despite it being against the law to do so, her boss insisted that she continue to do the more physically demanding parts of the job, like carrying items up and down the stairs, refusing to take into consideration her heavily pregnant state.
Clodagh says she feels that her boss was trying to force her to quit her job.
“I nearly gave in. I had anxiety attacks if not daily, then definitely weekly. I asked other team members If I was not pulling my weight and they said I was. Other than sick leave at the end I did not miss any work due to being pregnant.”
At her last meeting before going on maternity leave Clodagh’s boss suggested that she might not want to return to work as “surely my priorities will have changed now?”
She says she found the whole experience shocking. “I had always feared what it would be like to be pregnant in the workplace and it turned out to be so much worse than expected.”
“As a competent and capable human it enrages me that I have often been at a disadvantage due to my gender in the work place.”
Women who took time off work to be with their children were looked down on by both male and female work colleagues.
“Surely you will be totally out of touch when you return?”
Barrister Jenny* was made to re-interview for her own job when she was 7 months pregnant, “despite having accrued an entitlement under existing legislation to that job anyway”. After the interview her hours were halved.
Jenny explained that the culture within the office was very masculine and women who took time off work to be with their children were looked down on by both male and female work colleagues.
Prior to Jenny becoming pregnant, a female colleague commented on another colleague’s decision to take time off to look after her children, telling Jenny that the woman “would be totally out of touch when she returned”.
“The solicitor stated that she had never let her kids interfere with her professional obligations and that she had taken files into the labour ward with her.”
When pitching ideas in a business meeting, a senior female manager asked her, “And you are going to do all this while rocking the cradle?”
When Jenny was pregnant and pitching ideas in a business meeting, a senior female manager asked her, “And you are going to do all this while rocking the cradle?”
Jenny says sexism within the law industry was noticeable as soon as she graduated from law school, with many of the women she graduated with struggling to find employment.
“Girls with amazing results and extra curricular achievements were being turned down for positions that the boys were getting on lesser qualifications.”
Jenny says that this sexist discrimination has made the top tiers of law very male heavy. “If you look at the profile of the Bar of Ireland, there is about an 80/20 split women to men at entry and a 20/80 split in the Senior Counsel level of the profession.”
A recent study backs Jenny’s claims; the research found upper management levels of the legal industry are dominated by men and that 2 out of 3 female barristers face discrimination in the workplace.
Almost a third of women in Ireland felt that they had been discriminated against in the workplace while pregnant.
Jenny says she regularly experiences sexism in her workplace. “A senior colleague told me I had lovely lips at a work do, while leaning into me in a sleazy manner. Another male colleague intervened and said ‘that is no way to treat a colleague.’ He said “Oh sorry, I thought you were the secretary”.
In another instance Jenny attended a meeting centred around a report she had authored and she was told “to fetch the coffee”.
She says the men at her workplace regularly tell inappropriate sexist jokes in front of her and that her boss once discussed the physical attributes of the previous woman who held her position, “with another male colleague, in front of me.”
On another occasion a senior male colleague entered the board room and walked around shaking hands “with everyone there except me.”
A survey by the HSE Crisis Pregnancy Programme and the Equality Authority in 2011 found that almost a third of women felt that they had been discriminated against in the workplace while pregnant.
5 per cent of women reported that they had been fired due to being pregnant, with others saying that they felt they had been penalised for being pregnant with reduced hours, wages or workplace bullying.
For information on your rights while pregnant and working see the HSA website
*Names changed to protect anonymity.
About the Author
Taryn de Vere is a writer, a colourful fashion activist and a mother of 5.