I think I should probably start this blog by stating that I am an out and out feminist, who believes strongly that women should have careers. I also have two women working for me, one with a ten year old and one, who is a single mother with a one year old. Both work substantial parts of the week from home because it works for both them and the business. During the time I have run Cavill Robinson, which is a small business, I have had to deal with two employees, who got pregnant. One is the lady still working for me with the 10 year old child and her pregnancy worked as well as could be expected because we worked together to make sure that the disruption to the business was minimal. Both myself and the staff were highly supportive of her and were delighted when she returned to work.The other was a complete disaster because the woman concerned, who managed one of my offices at the time, put herself first and gave no thought at all to the impact of her pregnancy on other staff and their workload or to the business. Her behaviour resulted in resentful staff, an exhausted boss (me), who had to manage her workload as well as my own for a year and as she was also a producer for the business, a huge loss of revenue putting other staff's jobs at risk. She resigned shortly after returning to work because at the time I was unable to give her the working hours she demanded.
I therefore found the recent government proposals about extending the protection women receive concerning redundancy extremely interesting. The consultation document states that 1 in 9 women have been fired or made redundant when they have returned to work after a maternity leave or have been treated so badly that they have felt forced out of their jobs. This means that 8 out of 9 women have not had this problem. Clearly, some of the minority who have been fired or made redundant will have lost their jobs unfairly because of their maternity but because it is a minority who lose their jobs, I do wonder, after my experience, whether some at least of those redundancies or dismissals actually have other reasons than the maternity leave issues.
Despite this and in order to reduce the number of women affected by job loss due to maternity leave, the government is proposing extra rights for women returning to work after having a baby. Currently, before making an employee on maternity leave redundant, employers have an obligation to offer them a suitable alternative vacancy, where one is available with the employer. This gives the woman priority over other employees, who are also at risk of redundancy thereby challenging the "default setting" of automatically offering redundancy to the woman on maternity leave. The government is proposing that these rights should also cover the first six months after a woman returns to work.
Whilst I can see what the government is hoping to achieve by such a measure, I do question how fair this is to other employees and whether such a route is going to create a sense of injustice amongst other staff should genuine redundancies have to be made.
However, it seems that if one is brave enough to question the law around maternity leave as it stands. let alone any enhancement of it, one is seen as having antiquated views that need changing. Indeed, the government's consultation document states that a "change in atitude and culture is needed as well as legislation". I would suggest that a change in how the government approaches this would be more effective from a small business perspective. Some understanding of the very real difficulties maternity leave can cause for a small business would be welcome. In addition, more help in coping would be more effective than giving women ever more rights, which arguably and regardless of discrimnination issues, endanger young women's career prospects. It is not enough for the government to cover the majority of a woman's maternity pay. They should cover all of it. In addition, they should pay the cost of covering the role in some way and above all, they should pass legislation ensuring that the woman gives a fixed date for when she intends to return to the business allowing the business to plan how it is going to deal with her absence. Only then will they begin to change attitudes instead of creating headaches.