Legislation making things worse for working women


Thirty years after Britain outlawed discrimination against women in the Sex Discrimination Act, new research reveals that employers are still discriminating against pregnant women and women of child-bearing age.

According to the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), which represents the UK's recruitment industry, three-quarters of recruitment agencies are aware of businesses blacklisting young women, while more than one in 10 felt that pressure from employers prevented them from putting forward pregnant candidates, or those likely to have children.

One in five also said more clients were asking them to break the law by avoiding young women who may be looking to start a family.

But with almost a quarter (22 per cent) of agencies reporting that discrimination is actually are getting worse for women and four out of 10 saying that things are not improving, it seems increasingly clear that tough legal measures designed to protect women in the workplace are having precisely the opposite effect in the real world. For example, expectant mothers' jobs must be risk assessed on health and safety grounds. If their job is a risk to their health, they must be offered a suitable alternative role or suspended on full pay.

They also have a right to return to their old job on equal terms and conditions, something that is problematic if employers find that the temporary replacement performs better than the employee on maternity leave.

In addition, holiday still accrues while on maternity leave, an additional burden to businesses, while the question of what to do with employees on maternity leave where bonuses are performance-related is also a legal minefield.

New measures to be introduced in April 2007 will only put further pressure on employers by extending maternity leave and may further damage the employability of women as companies count the financial and operational cost of a longer maternity absence.

In particular, the new legislation proposes an increase to 39 weeks' paid maternity leave - and eventually a full year - meaning that employers will not only have to continue paying an employee during the extended maternity leave, but also find sufficient funds for a temporary replacement.

Legal experts have warned that for many firms, particularly small or start-up businesses, these burdens will simply provide further compelling reasons not to recruit women of child-bearing age at all

In other words, the reality in the workplace for women likely to become pregnant is increasingly going to be a world apart from the aims of equal opportunities legislation.