Why would ANY boss hire a woman?

By: Clare Bullock

Date: 16 December 2009

As a start–up business, one of the most crucial elements will be employing a strong and reliable team. But how do you judge if someone is likely to be a reliable employee? One of the issues that can affect your team in the long term is maternity leave.

I was shocked to read Alexandra Shulman's recent article for the Daily Mail, ('Year-long maternity leave, flexi hours, four day weeks... why would ANY boss hire a woman?'), in which she argued that current maternity law is making women 'unemployable'. 

I found Shulman's article particularly galling given that she is a woman with children who is in a rare position of power as editor of Vogue UK. By her own admission, she was able to go back to work after only 18 weeks off because she had, and continues to have a 'live–in nanny'. This option is off the cards for the vast majority of women, yet her article implies that those who do not, or cannot hand their children over to others are likely to deliver a less than adequate performance in the workplace.

Shulman's is an extreme view, but there is no denying that for a small business, a vital employee taking maternity leave can make things difficult, particularly in the current economic climate. Although businesses that pay £45,000 or less in gross national insurance contributions in a tax year can reclaim 100% of Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP), there are other aspects to consider such as the potential costs of arranging for temporary cover. It can also have a negative effect on your team – promoting a junior employee to fill the position and then effectively demoting them once the employee on maternity leave has returned to full–time work can create resentment.

The Start Up Donut has plenty of information on the legal issues affecting maternity leave and SMP. However, I think there is more at stake here than just the law. The World Economic Forum (WEF) reported this year that the UK has slipped down the league tables for gender equality. The stats are alarming – the UK now stands at 15th out of 134 countries, a drop from ninth place in 2006. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) women in the UK face an average pay gap of 17%, with the media blaming the gap on women taking leave or working fewer hours when they have children. Compare this to the Scandinavian countries occupying the top positions in the WEF survey, where maternal leave can be up to 12 months, but which have smaller pay gaps. Is there a cultural difference here? If the UK is to really act on the gender equality it promotes, I would argue that all businesses, whatever the size, have a responsibility to ensure that they take maternity leave seriously.

What do you think? Are you a woman who has worried about the results of taking maternity leave or experienced difficulty returning to work after taking it? Have you deliberately chosen a less competitive or pressured career so as not to face these worries in the future? Are you an employer who has hesitated to hire a woman, because, in the words of Lord Sugar, you considered it 'a bit risky'?

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