The controversy over maternity rights intensified today after a new poll found that more than eight out of ten HR professionals in Britain believe bosses automatically think twice before employing women of ’childbearing age.’
The online poll by HR information provider Croner, was carried out after the widely reported comment of Godfrey Bloom, of the UK Independence Party, that: "no small businessman with a brain in the right place would hire a lady of childbearing age".
Of the 164 HR professionals who responded to the poll, 84 per cent said that firms are reluctant to employ women because of the maternity implications.
But Croner believes that businesses need to be more aware of what constitutes sexual discrimination in the recruitment process, as simply not giving an interview to a woman falling in this category could be enough to trigger a claim.
The latest government statistics show there are nearly ten million working women of childbearing age (16-49) in the UK workforce, with three and a half million aged 25-34, the most common age range for starting a family.
According to Croner, given the choice of employing either a newly married woman in her twenties or an older woman with children, some employers think they have good business reasons for choosing the older candidate becausd they would be less likely to go on maternity leave.
However, Richard Smith, HR expert at Croner, says that bosses should beware of potential sex discrimination claims from women who feel they may be overlooked during recruitment because they are of childbearing age.
He says: "It is unlawful sex discrimination to refuse to interview or employ a woman because she is, or is suspected to be, pregnant. This also applies to women of childbearing age, since this is not something related to her ability to do the job.
"Employers should steer clear of asking during an interview when a woman plans to start a family. This has nothing to do with her role as an employee and could be used as Tribunal evidence for sex discrimination.
"Some employers, especially in smaller companies, may think they have a business case for not employing younger women as they may find it difficult to recruit maternity cover or accommodate flexible working requests, should an employee become pregnant.
"But the law is very clear. It is unlawful sex discrimination to take into consideration factors relating to gender when recruiting staff.
Smith added that with the average age of women having their first child now 29, three years older than in 1972, many women were choosing to carve out a career before starting a family.
"But our survey shows that employers are making this harder through being prejudiced towards women who might soon decide to have a baby," he said.
"We are therefore advising bosses to ensure they are aware of the rights of mothers, expectant mothers and women of childbearing age to minimise the risk of a costly claim."