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Can we better enable women to advise employers earlier, if they expect to return after maternity leave – or not?

02 July 2015 - Rosemary French

Ok, I am a woman in business but actually I have a problem with current maternity legislation.

It is difficult for men to speak out on this subject and my doing so will also probably be considered discriminatory by some. I actually said this openly a couple of years ago when I was being interviewed live on the BBC on why older women were being employed in favour of younger women of child bearing age. I could see him visibly pale! But when I fully explained, he was actually nodding in agreement at the end!

My problem is that current legislation actually results in discriminatory action by small businesses in particular when recruiting. It works against employing women of child bearing age rather than offering full equality in recruitment. Let me make it clear that I do approve of legislation that enables women to take time off work and get paid during that first crucial year of bonding with their baby. The employer knows that the employee will be away for the year and makes arrangements either internally or by bringing in outside staff to cover. Businesses do find a way to ‘patch and do’ when they can plan in advance.   Especially when they are keen to ensure that they retain the skills of that woman in whom they have invested so much.

However, employers cannot plan as the employee reaches the end of her maternity leave. They have absolutely no idea whether the new mother is coming back to work until the very last minute. The employer has to wait until then to find out whether she is returning to work in the next few weeks or whether she is not and they have no time to plan a replacement. An employer can be left one key person short with no notice. Why on earth can the legislation not be tweaked to request that the employee informs the employer of her decision three months before her expected return? By then, the employee surely knows her intentions and that would give time for the employer to plan appropriately.

Of course, this then takes us to the thorny subject of why women are unable to make up their minds whether they are coming back to work.    The reason is very often because they cannot find a way to make childcare work financially (can she afford it), operationally (is flexible working offered?) and even whether they can get childcare at all (nurseries are already full).

So what’s the problem? Currently 3 to 4 year-olds in England can get 570 hours of free early education or childcare per year. So that means a woman can only work for 15 hours a week for 38 weeks a year.  What is she and her employer expected to do for the rest of the time? Indeed is the employer prepared to offer part time working at all?  Now David Cameron has pledged to double the hours to 30 hours of free childcare a week from 2017.  This is really excellent news!  That means over 600,000 extra free childcare places available for families every year.

The bad news is that, like the current and projected missing thousands of carers for the elderly, where are we going to get those child carers? They are certainly not coming through the colleges which have seen a significant reduction in childcare place applications this year due to the insistence that an applicant must pass English and Maths GCSE’s at C grade.    Without that they will not achieve the necessary qualification.

And then the nub of the matter.   What happens when the child is between 1 and 3?    Of course, the mother has to find a way to manage and although she really wants to get back to work, she has no choice because she simply cannot afford it.

This is crazy.  Where is the joined up thinking in this?   Government says it wants to support small employers and yet this is yet another barrier to their growth. My advice to a woman of child bearing years is – relocate to Scandinavia!

Article originally appeared in July's South East Business Magazine

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