Julia Llewellyn-Smith risks the wrath of feminists: If women keep taking so much maternity leave, no boss will want to employ us
Julia Llewellyn Smith
22:00 GMT, 18 July 2012
00:51 GMT, 19 July 2012
Late in the evening at a dinner party, Anthony, the head of a department at a City bank, made a shocking pronouncement.
‘When we have a vacant position I don’t even look at women aged between 24 and 40,’ he said, as we passed the brandy. ‘The headache of training someone who might have babies is simply not worth it.'
‘You have to find and train cover, who you then have to drop if the woman comes back. It’s illegal to ask outright if a candidate plans on a family, so it’s easier just to write all women off and give the job to a man.’
Taking time off to have a baby can make it hard for many women to return to their jobs
I gasped in disbelief. ‘You can’t say that!’ I exclaimed. But several high-flying women there nodded. ‘Young women no longer figure in my organisation,’ one confessed. ‘They’re more trouble than they’re worth.’
It seems that, thanks in part to our country’s increasingly generous maternity leave, the dreams of equality of Suffragettes and women’s libbers have come true. Mothers can work in high-powered careers, take long stretches of paid time off when they have babies and return to work when it suits them.
A new mother will now, on average, take almost nine months off — compared with five-and-a-half months six years ago.
Over the past five years, the number of women taking all their maternity leave entitlement — a year, with payment of some sort (benefits vary between employers) for the first nine months — has doubled.
Yet could such leave actually be detrimental to women’s status in the workplace Are fertile young women being shunned by employers who would have to fork out for maternity payments and cover
There seems to be a growing backlash against it — even by mothers. When internet giant Yahoo! this week appointed Marissa Mayer as CEO of the company — despite her being six months’ pregnant — she announced she will take only two weeks’ leave after she gives birth.
About half of fathers don’t take the fortnight’s paternity leave for which they are eligible
Few women at the top take long maternity leaves. When she was French Justice Minister, Rachida Dati returned to work in stilettos five days after a Caesarean. Karren Brady, when managing director of Birmingham Football Club, had three days off after the birth of her first child Sophia, something she says she bitterly regrets.
But most mothers take months, or years, off work — despite the potential damage to their careers and those of other women.
In many ways, we have both the previous Labour Government and the Coalition to thank (or blame) for this: their determination to win female votes means the maximum maternity leave has doubled over the past decade to a year.
But is it possible for women to enjoy high-powered careers and take huge amounts of time off to be hands-on mothers Increasingly, experts, including many prominent feminists, say the answer is no.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett is a leading campaigner for better maternity leave in the U.S. (American women are allowed 12 weeks’ leave, unpaid), but accepts that the long leaves in many European countries are backfiring dramatically, with employers overlooking women of childbearing age altogether.
A mother of four, 54-year-old Dr Hewlett went back to work just ten days after giving birth to her first child. Later, she lost twins when she was seven months’ pregnant. Her employers fired her shortly afterwards for ‘allowing childbearing to dilute her focus’.
‘I came at the issue of maternity leave as a warrior fighting the good fight,’ she says. But studying German leave — where women are allowed to take as long as three years off — led Dr Hewlett to reassess her opinion. ‘German employers were quite open about avoiding young women when they could. A mother of two could potentially take six years off work,’ she says.
‘One employer told me he regarded all women of childbearing age as “wombs in waiting”.’ Dr Hewlett also discovered that countries with the shortest maternity leaves, like the U.S. and Australia, had far more women in top jobs than in countries where leave is more generous.
But she also points out that in the U.S. far more women leave the workforce entirely when they have children, and believes longer leave would help keep these women.
In Sweden — held up as the template for family-friendly policies — there is the highest ‘occupational segregation’ in Europe, with most women working in the lowly-paid public sector, while men hold better-paid jobs in the private sector.
Rachida Dati (left) and Karren Brady (right) both returned to work within days of giving birth
Swedish women, who enjoy up to 16 months’ leave, are far less likely to hold managerial positions than British or American women.
In Britain, a similar state of affairs may not be far off. A recent survey of 10,000 British bosses showed only 26 per cent of them intended to employ women, compared with 38 per cent last year, and a third said they were put off by having to provide maternity leave.
The backlash can’t only be blamed on bosses. It’s also the fault of many new mothers — often middle-class, educated women.
Rather than treating maternity benefits as a hard-won safety net, the first generation of women to enjoy them can behave as if they have a legal right to take advantage of their employers and colleagues.
Take one member of a baby group I attended in West London, with my second child. Miranda (not her real name) was financial director of a small business and openly stated her aim, during her nine months’ leave, was to return to work pregnant. She succeeded, worked for just six months and this time took a year ‘on the company’.
She then returned to work for 13 weeks, the statutory time necessary so as not to have to repay her benefits, before resigning to achieve her real goal of being a full-time mother.
Writer Julia Llewellyn-Smith with her daughters Sasha and Clemmie
My friend Keith, who works at the BBC, recounts how, after a round of redundancies in his department, many of his female colleagues quickly became pregnant. Not only would they have leave funded by the licence fee — but discrimination laws would make it hard to sack them, he says.
Even if women return to work (and employers can make no plans about it since they are legally banned from asking if or when this will happen), they are allowed to request flexible hours.
Meanwhile, 12 months at home may have left them lagging behind their colleagues in terms of skills gained and contacts acquired. Indeed, even women who support generous maternity leave accept it inevitably causes problems for them when they return.
Julia Hobsbawn, a mother-of-three, stepmother-of-two, and author of The SeeSaw: 101 Ideas For Work-Life Balance, says: ‘By taking huge stretches of time like a year, it can make it much harder for them to get back in the saddle of office life with confidence.’
In her own research, Dr Hewlett discovered that a couple of maternity leaves of just six months had little or no effect on a woman’s future earning power. But if she took a total of more than two years off, she lost for ever 18 per cent of her earning power.
If she took three years off, her earning power was reduced by 38 per cent. Because of this, many women choose to sacrifice time with their infants rather than damaging their much-loved, hard-won careers.
Michelle Rodger, 42, from Glasgow, who runs a communications firm in the City, returned to work 12 days after her daughter was born by Caesarean, 13 years ago.
‘What women don’t realise is how much harder it will be to get back on the career ladder once they’ve decided to take a long break,’ she says. ‘Women and businesses are losing out. A line needs to be drawn between what’s sensible and what’s not.’
One thing seems clear: our maternity leave arrangements — in which mothers are entitled to so much time off they are seen as a liability by wary employers — are far from sensible.