Baby means not getting ahead at work

Time of article published Oct 19, 2001

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Belinda Earl, the boss of Debenhams, is set to become the first chief executive of a major British public company to take maternity leave.

Not for her the fax in the delivery suite; when she has her second baby in September, she intends to take six weeks off. She will return to work to present the company's annual results in late October.

Six weeks is not, of course, a very long time for a new mother.

The public health minister, Yvette Cooper, who recently announced that she was about to become the first serving government minister to take maternity leave, will take 18 weeks (having, with incredible competence, neatly arranged her baby's arrival for the summer recess).

But Belinda Earl's announcement has nevertheless been welcomed by maternity-rights campaigners.

"Employers who want to attract and retain the best people," says Julie Mellor, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), "should learn from the example of Debenhams shareholders, who have been supportive of her decision."

There is, however, a lot to learn. In the week of Ms Earl's announcement, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux (NACAB) reported that tens of thousands of women every year are sacked, or threatened with the sack, because they are pregnant.

Some cases go to tribunal - like that of Sharon Sawyer, who had worked for Robson Cotterell, a firm of stockbrokers, for almost 10 years when she announced that she was pregnant.

Her commitment to the company was questioned, and the person brought in to cover for her was told she would not be coming back.

During her pregnancy, the company director asked Ms Sawyer to take her top off, offered to cut open her stomach to determine the sex of the baby and told her that his business didn't recognise maternity leave.

Southampton Employment Tribunal rejected his defence that all this was a joke, and awarded her £10 000 in damages and compensation.

But Ms Sawyer is in a minority. NACAB reports that even when they are advised of their rights, women are frequently wary of confronting their employers for fear of losing their jobs. Pregnant women and new mothers are put off embarking on adversarial tribunals at a time when they have rather a lot of other things to think about.

And, in any case, the compensation is not great: the maximum allowed for unfair dismissal is £51,700, and the median award is £2,515.

As long ago as 1988, the House of Lords judged that maternity leave, while undoubtedly inconvenient - especially to small businesses - was "a price that must be paid".

But according to Joanna Wade of the Maternity Alliance, "Many employers don't have that objectivity. We dealt with a case recently of a woman who had been PA to a director for 15 years. She put off getting pregnant because she felt he needed her.

"Eventually she did, because time was running out, and as soon as she went on maternity leave he sent her a message saying, 'I am sure, like my wife, you believe your place is at home with your baby'.

"She felt emotionally betrayed - as, probably, did he, but he wasn't prepared to be at all flexible."

This sense of betrayal is commonplace; it's as if getting pregnant is letting the company down and so deserves punishment.

In April 2000 a Lancashire CAB saw a single mother-to-be who had been sacked from her job in a shop a month after announcing her pregnancy, on the grounds that "a pregnant woman is not an attractive sight to customers".

In July 2000 a North Yorkshire CAB saw a pregnant woman who was working 22 hours a week in a travel company. She was being pressurised to reduce her hours to 11 a week or resign, on the grounds that her pregnancy was evidence of "unreliability".

Taking the most generous view, it may be that employers are simply confused about their obligations.

Many of the companies in which the worst abuses occur are small, with relatively low profit margins and capital investment. They may have grown from one-person operations, and don't employ a human resources specialist.

Their bosses could well be genuinely muddled. But they also tend to be companies in which workers are low-paid, non-unionised and don't have written contracts of employment - where staff, in other words, are more than usually exploitable.

Difficulties are created for women at all stages of pregnancy: over time off for attending ante-natal appointments, over the amount of leave they can take, over their hours when they return. And while some employers may be breaking the law in ignorance, others simply don't care.

One Kent company told a woman whose job was given to someone else while she was on maternity leave, "regardless of your rights, there is no job for you".

According to the Maternity Alliance, this is a common occurrence: "Women get back to work and find that loyalty and commitment has been transferred to someone else, often their maternity locum.

"No one has telephoned them while they've been away, the computer system's been updated and no one bothers to explain it."

If parental rights are to have any real meaning, campaigners argue, they must include a statutory right for parents to work flexible hours on their return to the workplace.

Mothers and fathers are often keener than ever to work hard and be productive, but cannot be available round the clock.

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