Halloween Day, 12.20, Trafalgar Square... Hundreds of discontented mums wrapped in bloodied toilet paper are pushing their prams towards Westminster. Their placards read: “March of the Mummies; We’re Dead Serious About Working Parents’ Rights” and “My Skills Got Me Hired, My Womb Got Me Fired”. No trick or treat here; this Walking Dead squad is here to speak up on the very real curse of being a working mum in 2017. In the UK, 11% of mothers are made redundant or pushed out of their jobs because of their pregnancies.
It’s the first protest for Pregnant Then Screwed, the pressure group launched in 2015 as a platform for horror stories of maternity discrimination, which affects around 54,000 women in the UK. It is now a nationwide support network providing advice to working mothers going through the clusterfuck of employment tribunals. If the campaign is geared towards the injustices faced by working mothers, it is wholly inclusive of fathers who want to spend more time with their children.
Once in Parliament Square, speakers address the cheerful crowd, a majority of seemingly middle-class and freelancer parents. Broadcaster Helen Skelton removes the chainsaw on her head to denounce the declining salaries for mothers returning to work; Sophie Walker from the Women’s Equality Party calls on employers to recognise the worth and productivity of mothers; actress Manjinder Virk shares a success story of a colleague “working the production schedule around her bump”; and celebrity parenting blogger Mother Pukka delivers a convincing speech on the economic benefits of flexi work through a megaphone, while holding her nonplussed baby daughter.
Supported by members of the Green and Labour parties as well as the SNP, the campaigners are making five demands, including increasing fathers' paid paternity leave from two to six weeks; subsidising childcare for children between six months and three years; and extending the time limits for pregnant and postpartum women to raise a tribunal claim. These call on the government to catch up with changing gender roles as well as work conditions brought on by the freelance, digital economy.
Full-time working mothers struggle with the lack of flexibility offered to juggle their families and careers, while self-employed parents are ineligible for Shared Parental Pay, a recent measure that could soften the gender pay gap if applied widely. Parental Pay Equality, another protest group taking part in the march, is lobbying for extending shared parental pay to freelancers.
Shared Parental Pay offers up to 37 weeks of paid leave to be split equally between two parents, but is yet to become the norm since being implemented in April 2015. Many fathers don’t even contemplate requesting flexible working hours or time off to look after their kids, for fear of missing out on opportunities or seeming disengaged at work. The groups present last night want companies to make it mandatory for fathers to take leave; the only way to spread the childcare responsibilities more evenly and achieve real gender equality.