Shortly after the birth of my first child I was made redundant from my job at one of the UK’s top-ranked universities. For the previous two years I’d worked successfully in this role as a publicly funded contract research fellow.
I announced my pregnancy early while off work with extreme morning sickness. When I returned to the workplace, one of my key projects had been allocated to my colleagues. During the remainder of my pregnancy, I had opportunities removed and detrimental changes made to my funding source, moves I felt to be discriminatory.
When I finally welcomed my baby into the world, my supervisor didn’t send congratulations – but did send numerous demands to complete work. I did these tasks, usually in the dead of night when my newborn baby finally allowed me to put them to bed. I was determined to do all I could to minimise disruption to my projects and career.
When my child was just a few weeks old, I was asked to hand over all data on my project to another researcher in the group. Soon after, I was made redundant – ostensibly due to a lack of funding.
But my temporary replacement has continued to work on that project. What’s more, several researchers were recruited to the project within weeks of my redundancy. In the UK, women on maternity leave have the right to return to their original job. If that is not possible, they should be offered a suitable alternative role. I have been advised that my redundancy was potentially against the law.
It is a common misconception that researchers on fixed-term contracts have few employment rights, and I was advised that strict rules apply in a redundancy situation regarding the use of fair selection criteria. In my case, I was not aware of any selection criteria to determine who would lose their job.
I feel fortunate to have received excellent support and legal advice from the university union and lawyers, as well as Maternity Action and Pregnant Then Screwed. But not one of the senior academics appeared to be willing – or able – to stick their head above the protective parapet to side with me.
After informal approaches failed, I raised a grievance through the official university channels. I was subjected to a series of stressful hearings where I was interrogated. Each time I was made to feel guilty – that I had done something deeply wrong – for having a family and then complaining when I was treated badly. There was a refusal on the part of the university to acknowledge its legal responsibilities to enable me to return to my job after maternity leave.
Sadly, I am not alone in experiencing this – there appears to be an increase in women facing reduced hours or being forced out of their jobs due to pregnancy. Meanwhile, the number of new mothers in Britain who lose their jobs each year is now estimated to be up to 54,000.
My union representative has also told me that my experience is far from unique, and that the issues remain under-reported. I discovered that the internal grievance procedure at my university is a waste of time and energy, and the substantial charges to take a claim to an employment tribunal are prohibitive. My legal advisers say that any such claims with a strong chance of success are settled out of court under non-disclosure agreements, as documented for other types of claims.
This is despite initiatives such as the Athena Swan Charter, which aims to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine.
In my case, I believe part of the problem lay in the lack of monitoring by human resources departments and senior management at my university of hiring and firing decisions. Since roles are rearranged internally, there are no official written job descriptions, making it difficult for staff to challenge decisions.
I’ve grappled with a deep sense of injustice. To have my work taken away from me in this way has felt like a betrayal and has eroded my confidence, already in short supply as I learn to juggle parenting with my career responsibilities. The whole experience has been hugely disempowering.
I have not yet secured another post. The abruptness of my dismissal meant that I had no opportunity to conclude my experiments and I haven’t been able to negotiate a fair reference. I worry that I won’t be able to find another academic job, but I desperately hope that I’ll be able to return to research.