Maternity leave: does it work for or against women?

Maternity leave is something that is usually on the mindset of expectant mums and HR professionals, but last week’s comments by Dr Nicola Brewer, the chief executive of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission opened the debate up for man and women alike. But is it really a lose-lose situation for women??Vijayalaxmi Hegde finds out in the first of a two-part series.

For many new mums, the most dreaded moment is the day maternity leave ends. Your baby is smiling up at you and your heart melts, but the office beckons and you must go, or rather, wrench yourself away from your child.

Up until a year ago, you could claim up to only six months? maternity leave. All that has changed last April, new mums can now have the right to a 52-week maternity leave, getting paid for up to 39 weeks.

While that seems to be the unbelievable manna from heaven for working mothers, some employers do not like it at all and have admitted that they will now be doubly wary of employing women. This is especially true of small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs).

In this two-part series, we bring to you the two sides of the debate on maternity leave: ?it?s what women should rightfully have? versus ?this policy, like all other maternity legislation, works against women rather than for them?.

We cover the issue from the employers? viewpoint this week:

Julie Pittilla owns a small PR firm that employs only women. She feels very strongly about the issue. ?If one of my staff takes a year off, I lose a fifth of my workforce! Plus, you don’t know whether they are coming back or not ? but I still have to hold their job open and hence leave the employer in limbo,? she says.

?In addition, you have to find someone who is willing to replace them on a short-term contract, which can be expensive. In PR we are not flicking switches or operating machinery, so there is a need for a specific skill set which is not always readily available.

?I know of a friend who runs a company who now has to work extra hours and have less time with HER children so that her staff can have flexible working hours and spend more time with their children! It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to work out that most employers, regardless of the law, will employ the person that potentially causes them the least hassle.?

Catherine Morris of Iroquois Public Relations agrees with Pittila: ?As an employer, I have to say that I have been burnt once before on this issue and, yes, I would be very wary in future.? Morris? firm, too, is a small one and would be affected by such a maternity policy, she says.

This, more or less, confirms the findings of the 2007 survey by Citrix Online that 53% of employers believe the new regulations are making some managers think twice about recruiting women.

?In spite of the government?s best efforts to encourage employers to provide a family-work balance, our research has shown that attitudes, particularly amongst SMEs, have been slow to change,? says Simon Presswell of Citrix Online.

True, in the short run, it may be tough for SMEs to take a one-year maternity leave in their stride. But aren?t there ways to transform this situation into a win-win outcome? What do working mothers say to employers who believe that a year?s maternity leave hits productivity?
We bring the answers to you next week.

If you are a working mother and want to have your say here, please write and tell us your thoughts at editor@motherswhork.co.uk.

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