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Maternity leave discrimination

They used to say “behind every great man is a great woman” but for professional working mothers it’s more a case of “alongside every great woman is a hands-on partner who shares the childcare and domestic chores, and a supportive flexible employer”.

Given the increasing number of women who are the main or equal breadwinner in their relationships or families, it saddened, but did not surprise me to read last month that 50,000 women who take maternity leave each year cannot return to their former job because of discrimination.

In my professional experience, mothers who suffer the most discrimination are those taking a second period of maternity leave and requesting flexible working arrangements. Many such women are then earmarked for redundancy. Given that women on maternity leave enjoy protected status and trump other affected employees for any suitable alternative employment, even if they aren't the best qualified individual for the job, this is disheartening news.

New shared parental leave rights will take effect in 2015, meaning mothers and fathers will be able to share their maternity/paternity leave as they see fit from two weeks after the child's birth. Hopefully if more men take up these increased parental rights, maternal issues will become parental issues and women should be discriminated against less on the basis of their childcare responsibilities.

However, only a tiny percentage of men currently take additional paternity leave, so will anything really change just because the father can take paternity leave earlier on and for longer? Men worry that doing so may hinder their pay and promotion prospects. But it is only when fathers take up their increased rights that working mothers will attain true equality at work. Until employers accept there is an equal chance of men taking extended periods of parental leave to care for their children as there is of women taking additional maternity leave, then discrimination - as early as interview stage - is likely to continue. Unless corporate culture embraces recent societal change, the practical implementation of these new statutory employment rights will be challenging.

A US Working Mother Research Institute/ Ernst & Young study found that lack of flexibility and part-time options, and having to work more than 40 hours per week, were amongst the top factors pushing career-orientated mothers out of the workforce.

In a CIPD survey of more than 1,000 employers, more than three-quarters believed implementing flexible working practices had a positive impact on staff retention. And 22 of Britain's biggest companies recently signed a commitment to flexible working rights after finding that "agility" in staff hours and locations can cut workforce costs by as much as 13%. Flexible working can, therefore, benefit both parties.

From 2015, flexible working rights will be extended to all employees, so it won't just be parents doing the "walk of shame" at 4.30pm. Culturally this may improve the situation for working mothers. However, will these employees also be deemed less committed than others and suffer in terms of promotion and bonus prospects? Employers will not be able to discriminate against their entire workforce in this way. They must also start thinking about how to prioritise competing requests for flexible working from different sectors of their workforce.

Some employers still view flexible working as part-time working but they don't necessarily equate. It may be working from home one day per week or condensed hours on four days is a potential solution. A modern workplace which respects equality legislation and has a flexible workforce will be a successful one, with satisfied, loyal, productive employees, not to mention the respect of customers and clients. Many prospective clients now ask companies for their equality and family-friendly policies and statistics before deciding whether they want them to pitch for work. Stamping out discrimination could actually help to generate business.

There are many fair, forward-thinking employers in the UK. However, bias still exists in some workplaces, whether consciously or sub-consciously, with management attitudes towards family-friendly issues differing wildly from department to department. This must be addressed and a more consistent approach adopted within UK businesses to make workplaces truly family friendly.

Michelle Chance is an employment partner at law firm, Kingsley Napley