Six-year maternity call scrutinised

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An employment lawyer has contested suggestions made by the only female chairman of a blue-chip British company that employers should allow women to take up to six years of maternity leave.

City law firm Kingsley Napley employment partner Michelle Chance questioned why Dame Alison Carnwath, chair of property group Land Securities, did not extend the career break suggestion to men and other employees who wanted time off to support worthwhile causes.

Carnwath made the comments in an interview for the Financial Times. She said employers who retained female talent by offering them longer maternity leave would find “measurable economic benefits” compared to the wasted cost of hiring and training women.

“Employers have to learn to accommodate you through the mid-life piece,” Carnwath said. “If you want to spend, say, six years having children and getting them off to school before you come back and do full-time work, [companies] have to look upon it as not wanting to lose somebody.”

Chance said the proposals would cause employers “substantial problems” compared to the current legal limit of one year’s maternity leave.

“The employer’s business and market in which it operates may have changed substantially within six years, such that there may no longer be a suitable job open for the female employee,” she said.

“The female employee’s skills and knowledge will no longer be current and she may well have lost confidence during such a lengthy period of absence from the workplace. The employee will need extensive retraining, which will be an additional expense for the employer, on top of paying for her replacement, who will also require induction training.”

Chance also suggested Carnwath’s call could discriminate against male employees. She said it was unlikely the government would implement such lengthy parental leave, nor that an employer would voluntarily introduce it. But she warned that any who did would have to ensure the policy was fair to all employees.

“Whilst I fully support employers doing all they can to retain female talent of childbearing age, I also believe strongly that greater advances will be made for working parents in the workplace if employers and Dame Carnwarth view this not as a gender-specific issue which only affects women, but as a parental issue, regardless of gender,” she said. 

“Employers are not compelled to keep employees’ jobs open if they wish to take a career break to volunteer to work in an orphanage in Africa for six years, which is also a worthwhile cause, so why should they be compelled to do so for the reasons suggested by Dame Carnworth?”

The Chartered Management Institute’s director of strategy Petra Wilton said career breaks that did not force employees to give up their employment could be “beneficial for both employees and employers”.

She suggested employers could retain talent by implementing “the right policies and practices, embracing flexibility and keeping in touch on a regular basis”.

“It’s this ongoing support that will encourage employees to return to a top level career where they really can contribute to their organisation,” she said.

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