A further two new reports were published recently about women in the workplace, both highlighting the barriers to women following pregnancy and childbirth.
The latest reports (Women in the Workplace, BIS Committee and Executive Women in the Workplace Inquiry, Conservative’s Women Forum) are aspirational and bring the issues to the wider domain. But whilst they encourage debate, at what point will real action be taken to address the issue that a 9 month pregnancy affects the life-span of a career? It seems to me there are two intertwined myths that need to be tackled: The first myth is that women returning from maternity leave will prioritise their families and fail to work with the same commitment as fathers and non-parents. The second myth is that flexible working is primarily an employee benefit (mainly for the benefit of women).
Slater and Gordon last week hosted a round table discussion for key stakeholders to generate solutions and ideas as to how we might best move the topic forward, and address some of the misconceptions around women at work. The business sector were also invited to participate alongside policymakers and campaigners, since part of the solution will undoubtedly be to identify the benefits for business, now more than ever. Businesses are battling with the consequences of dire economic times, government cuts and rising costs. But it is no answer to dismiss this discussion as a luxury to be debated in wealthier times. Outside of the UK, resolving maternity discrimination has been seen as a priority measure to achieve economic growth, by keeping talented productive women in the workforce, contributing to the economy.
The answer to this issue may be to change the law, but it will also lie with employers who are committed to change. It is encouraging to see employers groups championing innovative working solutions, making the case for “agile” work methods.
It must also be right that the debate needs to be moved away from gender specific work patterns towards flexible working practices for all employees. In retaining the idea that only women need to work flexibly, we will continue to stigmatise women in the workplace. In reality, dynamic working is a benefit to employers and employees (regardless of gender) alike.
But the underlying economics of maternity and parental leave will also need to be tackled to achieve general consensus. The hidden costs need to be clarified, demystified, and assessed not only against the on-going cost of keeping women away from the top table, but also as an investment in the economy, since getting women back to work and up the career ladder must be seen as a long-term strategy to reap financial benefit and success. Understanding and accepting the business case for diverse workforces and agile working practices must be the zeitgeist which influences our current thinking around the elimination of maternity discrimination. After all, none of us want to risk throwing the financially lucrative baby out with the muddied bathwater.