Recently, deputy prime minster Nick Clegg criticised Britain's 'Edwardian' system of parental leave for working mothers and fathers. He said it was based on a 'view of life in which mothers stay at home'.
Sadly, it seems that too many employers share that view. 'Mother's Day?', a December 2010 survey by global workspace provider Regus, found that while nearly half (43%) of UK businesses plan to hire staff in 2011, only 26% plan to take on working mothers. A year ago, 38% would have hired them.
Nearly four out of ten UK employers surveyed think working mothers show less commitment and flexibility than other employees. One-third fear that working mums will leave to have another child.
As a working mother of an eight-year-old, I find such beliefs depressing. My own experience - with colleagues at Regus, with customers, and with friends - shows that those old-fashioned misgivings are unfounded. Of course, women may have another child and take maternity leave, but other employees leave too.
And to those who spout the 'commitment' argument, I would say any mother who finds a good job close to home, with good incentives and rewards, and hours that fit family life, is going to cherish that job. Committed? You bet.
Fortunately, the prejudice shown by some businesses is not universal. What we see is a world where family-friendly and flexible working is becoming the norm. Employers are allowing staff to work to timetables that fit their commitments and in locations close to home. It is not just mothers who benefit from this - it's fathers, people who care for elderly relatives, and anyone else who has commitments outside work.
Employers benefit too. By allowing all employees, not just parents, to work flexible hours or closer to home, they are rewarded by a more productive and loyal workforce. They can cut the costs associated with staff 'churn' and also reduce overheads.
So, while I welcome Nick Clegg's family-friendly comments, I believe that introducing a flexible-working mindset among employers is as important as the nuts and bolts of parental leave laws. Indeed, too much legislation could be damaging.
Parental leave legislation seems to be fairly high on the agenda in the EU. Yet, when I look at the Regus working mothers survey results, it strikes me that employers in France, Britain, Spain, Germany, Belgium and other EU countries score lower than the global average in terms of their willingness to hire returning mothers. Correlation or coincidence?
Whatever the case, it is time to look beyond the specific issues associated with working mothers and fathers and to embrace the bigger issue of flexible working - for mothers, for fathers, for all workers. Employers will reap the benefits.
'Mother's Day? ', December 2010, is available at www.regus.presscentre.com
Celia Donne is regional director at Regis