Legislation making women less employable


Legislation introduced earlier this year in the UK to boost maternity rights for women has only resulted in women becoming less employable – particularly as far as small and medium-sized employers are concerned.

Research commissioned by Citrix Online has found that more than half (53 per cent) of employers believe the new regulations are making some firms think twice about recruiting women at all.

The legislation, introduced in April 2007, extended the period of statutory maternity pay from six to nine months and removed qualifying criteria so that all mothers are now entitled to 12 months maternity leave, regardless of how long they have been employed in their position.

They are just the latest in a series of family-friendly initiatives introduced by the government since 2003 intended to help employees balance work and family responsibilities.

But as the Citrix survey revealed, not only is there still widespread ignorance about the new legislation, with a third of small and medium-sized businesses unaware of the changes, but a quarter also believe the latest changes have had a commercially negative impact.

While the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform insists that the initiatives have improved employee retention rates, with fewer women now changing employers after they return to work from maternity leave, the Citrix survey is just the latest to suggest that many employers are simply shunning women altogether.

In 2005, the UK the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, which represents the country's recruitment industry, revealed that 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.

And the year before, figures from HR information provider Croner suggested that eight out of 10 firms were reluctant to employ women because of the maternity implications.

On the positive side, however, nearly three-quarters of respondents to the Citrix survey felt that the new regulations will encourage more progressive companies to adopt additional flexible working practices to help working mothers manage the demands of work and family.

To this end, nearly eight out of 10 employers currently allow staff to take a day's holiday at very short notice and two-thirds offer the option to adjust start and finish time.

But perhaps the most crucial factor affecting mothers - the rigid nine-to-five working ethos – is proving far slower to break down. According to Citrix, fewer than one in five UK employers (just 18 per cent) offer formal flexitime and only one in 10 have embraced job sharing initiatives. And it is this, more than any other factor, that is persuading an increasing number of women to turn their backs on organisational life in a bid to invent their own working patterns.

A growing number of women - not just working mothers – are seeking greater flexibility, either by planning to set up their own businesses, retrain, work flexibly or pursue a "portfolio" career.

"In spite of the government's best efforts to encourage employers to provide a family-work balance, our research has shown that attitudes, particularly amongst SMBs, have been slow to change," said Citrix's Simon Presswell.

"There is a preconception that hiring women can be detrimental to a business, but the opposite is true," he insisted.

"A company that supports women in maternity leave and encourages them to work flexibly upon returning to work will benefit from a more highly motivated and loyal staff, with lower levels of absenteeism."

But with an increasing number of women shunning the organisations that are shunning them, it seems that getting this message through remains an uphill struggle.