Maternity law reform fuels an old debate
Zoe Strimpel talks to employment lawyers about the impact of the new rules
If you’re an employer, or a woman of childbearing age, your ears may have pricked up at the comments made this week by Nicola Brewer, CEO of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. Brewer said that new legislation that extends paid maternity leave from nine months to a year may backfire on women.
She said the changes, due to come into effect at the next parliament, might cause employers to look less favourably on hiring or promoting women because of the longer time of absence. Some employers think twice about employing women aged between 25 and 35 because they can take maternity leave. Sir Alan Sugar has said that he is nervous about employing young women.
“The thing I worry about is that the current legislation and regulations have had the unintended consequence of making women a less attractive prospect to employers,” said Brewer.
Yet some say that the changes need not impact negatively on women in the workplace. On the contrary, Trish Lawrence, head of member services for financial and legal firms at Opportunity Now, a women’s business support network, says that the extension of paid maternity leave to a year could actually be positive. “It’s probably easier to replace someone for a year than six or nine months. There tends to be more choice for a longer term contract than a short.” Lawrence sees maternity cover roles as another positive: such positions are a good way to smooth the return of people to the workforce.
As for not hiring women because they may give birth and take time off, Lawrence has little time for Alan Sugar’s line of argument. “The name of the game is attracting and retaining the best talent regardless of gender. A lot of organisations have a big female intake; they train them, invest in their future. If talent is wasted at the point in their lives when they want to have families, it’s bad for business, the women themselves and society. Anything we can do to prevent this talent from being wasted is good.” Lawrence says Opportunity Now members – which include Accenture and Credit Suisse – are working hard on support structures for women on maternity leave, making sure they stay in touch with them, then mentor them on return. Such organisations are more concerned with getting the mothers back to work and feeling positive, than worrying about the costs of maternity leave, she says.
Greg Campbell, a partner in the employment group at solicitors Mishcon de Reya, also believes that women won’t suffer unduly for the extended leave. He argues that the jump from nine to 12 months is hardly a big deal. The statutory minimum is just £120 a week, meaning that some women will avoid taking the whole time available to them anyway.
Furthermore, firms are legally forbidden to hold reproductive potential against someone. “Comments like Nicola Brewer’s are unhelpful,” says Campbell. “They encourage people to think the law can be sidestepped. In fact, most employers try to obey it.”
So, is the law positive? Most agree that it’s simply too soon to tell.