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Employment Solicitor Sarah Russell on the widespread perception that maternity leave is a problem for employers

The Daily Telegraph last week ran a piece with the headline ‘Maternity leave is tough on employers, says presenter’. It reported that Alex Polizzi, presenter of ‘The Hotel Inspector’ had commented that it was hard for employers who did not know if women would return to work after the leave.

Ms Polizzi’s comments reflect a widespread perception that Maternity Leave is a problem for employers.  Sadly, what receives far less attention is the extent of the Discrimination actually faced by women when they have children.

The last large scale research on maternity related discrimination was conducted by the Equal Opportunities Commission in 2005. They found that around 30,000 pregnant women per year lost their jobs due to Pregnancy Discrimination. A further 60,000 experienced some sort of financial loss, for instance failing to get a promotion, or had their salary or benefits reduced. Women in managerial positions were particularly likely to lose their jobs or see a reduction in income.  

Over 28% of employers polled said that they ‘disagreed’ that it was worth training someone who was pregnant, despite the legal obligation to do so. More shocking still, in one online survey, 80% of HR professionals, who really should know better, admitted they ‘think twice’ before employing women of childbearing age.   

So, Maternity Leave is certainly tough on women’s employment prospects. But is it as tough on employers as portrayed? The survey showed that maternity leave does not have to be fatal to employee retention rates if it is appropriately handled: 8/10 women whose intention before childbirth was to return to work full-time did so, and 9/10 women who intended to return part-time, in fact did so. Some organisations report return to work rates of over 90%. Interestingly, the survey found that managers who had recently experienced pregnancy amongst their staff were less likely to report negative attitudes towards it.     

And what about the cost of maternity pay? Well, small businesses can actually recoup this plus an additional payment from the government, although most do not appear to know this. Better publicising this information would go far to reduce the anxiety about the financial impact of women taking maternity leave.   

Anything that improves managerial attitudes towards pregnant women would improve the lives of so many, and reduce the horrendous waste of potential talent and productivity that 30,000 discriminatory dismissals per year represent.   

If you are a woman who thinks she might be experiencing some sort of Pregnancy or Maternity related Discrimination, contact us for advice.