Meddling with maternity leave

15 May

When I read that last week’s lacklustre Queen’s speech had the sharing of parental leave between couples as a flagship piece of legislation, I grimaced. That particular old chestnut has been a policy goal in wonk circles for years. Indeed, in January last year in the stuffy offices of a London think tank, I listened to Nick Clegg talk passionately about how modern parents should be allowed to split “maternity” leave between them.

Talking of his own high-powered wife (a corporate lawyer) and how they juggled the care of their three children, he said the current system “patronised women and marginalised men”. He set out a vision of a gender-neutral family in which fathers shouldered equal responsibility for their children and mothers did an equal share of the breadwinning. It was all very starry and modern and it went down a storm at the trendy think tank. But I couldn’t help thinking that he was getting a bit ahead of the British public. Sure, there are increasing numbers of female breadwinner families that this policy would suit, but I haven’t exactly heard a nationwide clamour from fathers to be allowed to stay home and change the nappies. Then again, whether or not a policy has popular support has never been a biggie for Clegg: I mean, House of Lords reform? Proportional representation?

The argument for split parental leave is that it would counter the reluctance of employers to hire a woman if a man could suddenly be absent — but still on the payroll — for months too. I don’t think there are enough men out there who would take it up for the policy to make any difference. More importantly, since we are in a double-dip recession, anything that loads more costs on to businesses is a bad idea. Extending maternity/paternity rights in this climate seems not just a bit self-
indulgent — as it did last January — but seriously flawed.

I believe the system of maternity leave in Britain is already over-generous. It sounds odd coming from a working mother but studies have shown that allowing women to take more than six months off damages their careers and prospects. Several international studies have found that European women with their mighty maternity benefits (16 months in Sweden, up to three years in Germany and a year in Britain) are being “killed with kindness”. The Research Institute of Industrial Economics in Stockholm said in a report in 2009 that “the more generous countries are with maternity leave, the fewer women you are likely to see at the top”.

There are far fewer women on boards in Germany than there are here. In Sweden women’s long entitlements to time off have created “occupational segregation” — they work overwhelmingly in the public sector because private firms are too scared of the costs and consequences to hire them. One study of 17 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that six months was the sweet spot for maternity leave — if it is any shorter, women drop out of their jobs in droves; any longer than six months and women find themselves being forced out on their return to work. The reasons are obvious: in a year, too much has changed, the woman’s job in its old form may no longer exist, clients are different and technology has moved on. Legally, companies have to keep her job open for a year, but the reality for many new mothers is they return after that period to find they have been sidelined and a few months later they are let go. I would advise any ambitious woman not to take off more than six months, whatever the law says. Indeed, most high-flying women I meet are back at work long before that.

Let’s be clear. I am not against maternity leave, but six months is enough to breastfeed, wean and bond. I am appalled by the ghastly system in America, where women get only three months’ unpaid leave, so if they want to breastfeed they must spend hours in “pumping stations” in the office, looking at pictures of a newborn they will hardly see. But between that horror and a year of maternity leave lies a sensible middle ground. Britain is the wrong side of that line, and the costs — for small businesses particularly — are crippling: a third of British businesses cite maternity leave as the reason they discriminate against women when hiring.

I have a good friend who runs her own communications company employing 10 people. She has lots of good work and clients, but this year she nearly went bankrupt because three of her permanent staff are on maternity leave. “I’m a working mother myself, but the way the maternity leave system works is ridiculous,” she says. “I’m not even allowed to ask the
women when they go off to have the baby if they are intending to come back. I’ve had a couple of cases now where I have kept someone’s job for them for a year — at the end of which they say they aren’t returning. “Paying their salaries is crippling, but even worse is the uncertainty. I’ve lost several talented juniors because I can’t give them a proper job or contract because of the mums on the payroll. In such a small team it is impossible to plan or expand.”

My friend is frustrated. She is providing the kind of employment mothers need but the system penalises her for doing so. What the government should have done in the Queen’s speech is help entrepreneurs such as her. She has enough work to expand but cannot take on the staff she needs because of the maternity millstone round her neck. A tax break or extra help with maternity costs for small businesses would be a win-win.

As Theresa May, the women’s minister, put it: “If we fully used the skills and qualifications of women who are currently out of work, it could deliver economic benefits of £15 billion to £21 billion per year. If women started businesses at the same rate as men, there would be an additional 150,000 extra start-ups each year in the UK. And if the UK had the same level of female entrepreneurship as the US, there would be approximately 600,000 extra women-owned businesses, contributing an extra £42 billion to the economy.”

Rather than fiddling around with already burdensome parental benefits, the government needs to start listening to what entrepreneurs want. Extending parental rights is madness. The right course would be to return to six months’ leave, to be split between mother and father if the couple choose to do so, and to help small businesses with the costs so they can expand and rebuild the economy. So, Nick, what are you waiting for?

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times


3 Responses to “Meddling with maternity leave”

  1. reesesrants May 15, 2012 at 9:57 am #

    Again, focusing on high flyers, boards and business, rather than what’s good for the majority.
    The main issue for nearly all working women is the high cost of childcare rather than feeling frustrated that they’re not Alexis Carrington Colby.
    Work provides cash, a sense of self esteem and a sense of purpose. This can be found in lots of occupations.
    Value all women and all workers please!

    • mattwardman2000 May 16, 2012 at 1:53 pm #


      I think I’m pretty much with your basic argument, but do you have a cite for this:

      ” In Sweden women’s long entitlements to time off have created “occupational segregation” — they work overwhelmingly in the public sector because private firms are too scared of the costs and consequences to hire them.”.


      I can’t help thinking that the solution to high childcare costs consists mainly of lighter regulation.

  2. Justsomebody May 17, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

    Does your friend who runs the comms company really have to pay her employees’ salaries whilst they’re on maternity leave? I thought it was the government who paid for that. And six months is not really very long at all if you consider that some babies are born prematurely and maternity leave starts from the moment the baby’s born – if your baby is born six weeks early, then when you go back to work they’ll only be 4 and a half months mature!!

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