WMC Women Under Siege

Fired for having a baby

São Paulo, BrazilBarbara Thomaz, a Brazilian TV personality, 33, lost her job at a public TV station after her maternal leave. In the early stages of her second pregnancy, before she knew she was expecting, she reported an incident of sexual harassment at the workplace by one of her superiors on a show she hosted in 2013 and 2014. In the fall of 2015, Thomaz’s contract was terminated. Thomaz believes she was let go both because of her maternity leave, and because she reported harassment.

“When I became pregnant, I noticed a change in how I was treated at work,” Thomaz says. 

Barbara Thomaz on the set of her now-cancelled show, "Mais Cultura." (TV Cultura)

It wasn’t the first time she had lost her job after a pregnancy: Another network, Glitz Channel, terminated an earlier contract with her roughly six years earlier, following the birth of her first child. As a contract rather than full-time employee, Thomaz was in discussions with the company about negotiating maternity leave following her baby’s birth, when she received an email that instead cancelled her contract entirely in her seventh month of pregnancy.

In first sharing her story with Brazil’s Marie Claire magazine last September, Thomaz spoke about maternity leave as a right that many women around the world don’t have. But her experience is also telling of how even with such a “right” codified, it doesn’t necessarily function as it should—with a woman being welcomed back to her workplace. In Brazil, 48 percent of mothers are fired from their jobs within a year of giving birth, according to research published in 2017 by the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, a Brazilian higher education institute and think tank. The foundation’s findings are based on interviews with 247,455 women between 2009 and 2012. 

For poor women and women of color in Brazil, the relationship between maternity leave and employer abuses is even worse. These women are subject “to unfavorable labor situations without legal or social protection, and are subjected to degrading and risky conditions,” says Glaucia dos Santos Marcondes, a sociologist at the University of Campinas in southeastern Brazil.

TV Cultura, Thomaz’s former employer, denies there was any discrimination against Tomaz because she’d taken leave. A representative from the station told WMC Women Under Siege by email that the termination of her contract came naturally, as her TV show “Mais Cultura” had been cancelled due to budget restrictions. The representative for the company also said that her “profile” wasn’t a good fit for other shows, “Therefore, terminating the contract had nothing to do with her recent maternity.” 

Thomaz disagrees, and says she noticed a change in her treatment at work both during her pregnancy and following her complaint about the harassment. “I had some setbacks caused by health issues during my pregnancy, and it was noticeable that it wasn’t pleasing [to them]…I also know of other women at the station that had problems during their pregnancies, and were let go once they came back from maternal leave,” Thomaz says. 

“I truly believe that their decision to let me go was mostly based on the fact that I was standing up against harassment, and the situation became aggravating to them.” 

TV Cultura is part of Fundação Padre Anchieta, (FPA) a media organization focused on developing educational and cultural radio and television programs. The organization is funded largely by the São Paulo State government, but also receives some private funding. According to an official public response to Thomaz’s comments: “FPA doesn’t only respect the labor laws guaranteed to our collaborators, but recognizes their potential and relevance inside the daily work environment of its radio and TV stations.”

Maternal leave is an international issue. While Scandinavian countries are known as the gold standard when it comes to supporting working mothers—with as many as 480 days total with 80 percent of pay for parents in Sweden—other countries have far less progressive policies that disadvantage new moms in the workplace. Barbara Thomaz’s ordeal highlights how women’s careers can be affected simply by choosing to have children.

For Thomaz, being at the epicenter of this problem while working for a broadcaster revered for its family values and ethics only adds insult to injury. The TV host respects Cultura’s history as a broadcaster and says it was one of the most exciting professional opportunities she’s had, but after “hearing many outrageous accounts and confessions from other women that came to me after exposing my ordeal, I understood that [the company] lives in hypocrisy. There is more to it than meets the eye.”

After losing her TV show at Cultura, Thomaz recalls that there were discussions about her hosting a new series on motherhood. TV Cultura has taken some steps to show it cares about motherhood. Currently, the network is airing a show called “Momento Papo de Mãe” (“Mother Talk Moment”), aimed at “pregnant women and families with children in their early years, and broaching subjects about the hardships of raising kids, and challenges that mothers face in social relationships, and in the workforce,” according to their official statement. 

While the reality for many working mothers remains grim, as more people like Thomaz come forward about discrimination, it “reaffirms the experience so that others can no longer deny it,” says Lisa Wade, an associate professor of sociology at Los Angeles-based Occidental College. As with the recent spate of women coming forward to share their #MeToo stories, women like Thomaz are making it more difficult to sweep discrimination against working mothers, and working women in general, under the rug.  

Motherless new world 

Maternal leave first emerged in Brazil in the late 1940s, with an average paid leave of 12 weeks, according to Marcondes. When the Constitution was promulgated in 1988, it was extended to 120 paid days for every tax-paying Brazilian woman; public servants are entitled to up to 180 days.

“The guarantee and expansion of these rights…[was intended] to enable family women to integrate into and stay in the workforce under respected conditions, without suffering discrimination because they are mothers,” says Marcondes. 

Generally, mothers of newborn or newly adopted children in the U.S. are entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave—but only if they have worked at a company for 12 continuous months and accumulated 1,250 hours over that time, and if their company has more than 50 employees.

“If any one of those three things isn’t true, they don’t get anything at all,” says Wade. “Roughly one-third of women qualify…this leaves out many low-wage and part-time workers, immigrants, people of color, and poor or working class.”

Most women in the U.S. wind up taking unpaid leave. This standard leaves the U.S. trailing behind other developed countries such as Austria, Germany, South Korea, Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, South Korea, Australia, as well as nations like Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Spain, and Brazil. 

It wasn’t until 1993 when President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) into law that American women were entitled to 12 weeks of leave without fear of losing their jobs. “To feminists, the FMLA meant a lot, as protected parental leave is a basic human right,” says Wade. Still, she says. “There are bosses that don’t think mothers are serious about their jobs, and who perceive them as bad employees.”

Following pregnancy announcements, it isn’t uncommon to hear accounts of women being pressured to resign, or otherwise leave their jobs, says Marcondes, whose research shows that during hiring and salary negotiation processes, being a parent or planning a “is sometimes used against women.” As more women become the breadwinners in their families, Wade hopes this dynamic will change. 

The country of the #MeNeither movement

TV Cultura says its human resources staff is there to “prevent, control, and punish cases of harassment that might occur inside the institution” and that it has a social worker on staff to help employees facing delicate work or personal matters. But its statement addresses no specific steps taken following Barbara Thomaz’s complaints.   

After Thomaz suffered sexual harassment, she reported the incident to management and human resources, an ultimately futile effort. Her coworker, a superior, had grabbed her and forcibly tried to kiss her. When she refused, Thomaz says, her career came to a standstill. “My work performance was being damaged, and I didn’t have psychological and emotional conditions to stay in such an unwholesome environment,” she says. Ultimately, her complaint resulted in no policy change or penalties for her harasser, who still has a job with TV Cultura.

In order to protect workers from the kinds of discrimination faced by Thomaz, Marcondes believes the best solution is to create independent spaces and institutions where professionals have the opportunity to share and discuss their experiences, and find solutions to better protect their rights as well as their mental, material, and physical integrity.

As a white, upper-middle-class TV personality, Thomaz can attract media attention for her cause in a way other victims can’t. For Marcondes, the stance that Thomaz took is an important step toward opening a public debate about maternal leave and harassment, in order for people to “gain knowledge about their rights and ways to defend themselves, and uncover similar cases to find the best outcomes, thereby helping to build a society with more welfare and social justice” in Brazil. On the other hand, Wade at Occidental College sees her move as risky: It could trigger professional backlash and then would “serve as a cautionary tale to women who stand up to their rights.”

Unlike the U.S., Brazil isn’t seeing emerging movements like #MeToo or #TimesUp, leaving Thomaz without any backup from celebrities or public figures. Right now, however, Thomaz is clear on why she’s spoken out and that it is important. 

“I didn’t come out to have shining lights and attention,” she says. “I did it because if I stayed quiet, I would go against everything I believe and fight for. This macho mentality [of ignoring the rights of working women] debilitates mothers, and puts them at the margins of the labor force.”

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