Maternity rights holding back women, equalities watchdog warns

14 July 2008

New equality laws such as extra maternity leave could be putting women at a disadvantage when it comes to finding employment and being promoted, the head of the new equalities watchdog has admitted.

Nicola Brewer, the chief executive of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, said in a national newspaper interview that giving women the right to take a fully-paid year off work as maternity leave was making employees think twice about offering jobs or promotions to female candidates.

Currently, women are entitled to take nine paid months of maternity leave, but this will increase to one year at the end of the current Parliament.

But Brewer says the extension reinforces the belief that women are responsible for bringing up children while men are “optional seasoning”. She warns that giving women such generous maternity leave without offering fathers the same, entrenches the view that “women are the ones who have to pay the career price for motherhood”.

In a speech expected later today, Brewer will call for new legislation to tackle the “significant inequality” between maternity and paternity leave.

This will include allowing fathers more rights, and improve their ability to take paid time off work to care for a child. Brewer also believes that flexible working – for men and women – is the way forward for everyone in the workforce.

“Since 1997 the increase in maternity leave has been dramatic and welcome,” she says. “But in not allowing fathers good rights as well, I think it presents us with an inconvenient truth.

“Has policy on maternity leave made too many assumptions about the choices families will make and as a result entrenched the stereotype that it is women who do the caring and men who do the earning?”

Her speech will also call to an overhaul of the system, with terms such as maternity and paternity leave potentially replaced by a more generic 'parental leave' that could be shared by parents depending on their circumstances.

Brewer adds: “Shouldn’t dads have the right to the first 12 weeks paternity leave paid at 90% of their salary? Should public spending be reprioritised to focus on giving real choice to every family?”

The Equality and Human Rights Commission, which was established in October last year, has today launched a consultation into the issue. It will report back its findings and any legislative proposals in the new year.

Duncan Fisher, of Dad.Info, an information service for fathers, welcomed the move.

He says: “We have this idea that mothers and fathers freely choose their roles. They don’t - 80% of mothers earn less than their partners, part-time work is badly paid and only full-time work creates enough security for most families, there is no affordable leave for fathers.

“All this means it is a lot cheaper for families if dad works all the time and mum does all the caring. This is not what most families want for their children. If families could afford for dads to take time off for childcare, most would choose this.”

Trade unions say women being at a disadvantage because of their maternity rights is a "myth" but says more rights for fathers will benefit all parents. 

Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trade Union Congress, says: "Proposals to increase flexible working rights to the parents of older children and allow up to six months of maternity leave to be transferred to fathers will help combat these entrenched views about family-friendly rights and will benefit all parents. Increasing paid parental leave will also mean more fathers are able to afford time off."

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