Stronger maternity rights can help mothers, but they will hurt employers and women in generalby Catherine Hakim / November 18, 2009 / Leave a comment
It seems self-evidently unfair that a woman should lose her job for being pregnant, yet such things used to be common. Before equal opportunities legislation was introduced in the 1970s, it was even legal to fire women for getting married. Now Harriet Harman is determined that Britain must do more to protect women. Her equalities bill follows Sweden’s lead, where maternity leave has been extended to three years and fathers are forced to take paternity leave. Yet laws protecting women’s employment are less successful than we think, and Harman’s moves to break the glass ceiling may actually strengthen it.
The law requires women to notify their employer if they wish to return to their job a few weeks before they go on maternity leave, and inform them of their return date a few weeks before they go back. Statutory maternity leave includes a paid period, plus an additional unpaid period, so mothers may return to work anywhere between one and 12 months after birth. An employer is penalised for failing to honour this bargain, but women can decide not to return without penalty, simply by giving notice and resigning at any time. Pregnant women thus have a strong incentive to say they will go back to a job even if they think they will not. And indeed the number of notifications rose from the mid-1970s onwards; in recent years 60 per cent of women signalled the intention to return.
Yet only about half of mothers do return to their previous jobs, a figure largely unchanged since maternity protection was introduced. Government surveys deftly skate around this issue by focusing on mothers who return to any job, however briefly, including those who go part-time, or find work with a different employer.
The results shouldn’t surprise us. Many women find themselves too attached to a newborn to want to return to work, while some have children with medical conditions that make combining childcare and work impractical. Mothers often discover that it is more cost-effective not to pay for childcare, and do the job themselves, while others find that their childcare plans do not work out as they had hoped. And it is hard to argue that women should not be able to change their minds, even if employers have no equivalent rights.
However, research shows that most women do not actually change their mind: roughly two-thirds of those who pledge to…