The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has called for maternity leave to be made easier for employers to manage through a new dialogue with women workers.
Following extensive consultation with business organisations, the EOC is backing calls to ask women to indicate their return dates much earlier during maternity leave, where this is possible.
The move comes after Trade and Industry Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, announced plans last month to extend the period of paid maternity leave.
The EOC argues that the lack of early dialogue between employers and employees on maternity leave causes problems on both sides, increasing uncertainty and unnecessary business costs.
Issue around maternity leave – particularly uncertainty over return dates – have emerged as major bugbears for employers, with a report by the Institute of Directors earlier this year going as far as to say that they were undermining relations between employees and employers.
The EOC's consultation found that for small business the costs of covering maternity leave can be £5,000 to £7,500. Whilst employers can claim back maternity pay from the Government, additional costs come from the recruitment of temporary cover, loss of skills and experience during the absence, management and administrative time.
But the EOC points out that the best employers establish dialogue from the outset, and by offering flexibility manage to get over nine out of ten women returning to work for them after maternity leave. On average, fewer than half (47 per cent) of women return to work for the same employer.
EOC's research also shows that one in five women face dismissal or financial loss as a result of their pregnancy. The investigation discovered that while most employers who are aware of the law actually support it, many simply do not know what their responsibilities are.
But many employers are shunning young women altogether. Last September, a poll by consultants Croner found that more than eight out of ten HR professionals believe that firms are reluctant to employ women because of the maternity implications.
Amongst a range of recommendations, the EOC is proposing a new written statement for all pregnant women and their employers outlining their rights and responsibilities. It is also calling for better childcare to benefit employers and working parents.
Speaking at the CBI Conference Chair of the EOC, Julie Mellor said: "Employers need to be able to plan ahead. One of the biggest problems they face over pregnancy issues is the uncertainty of whether and when a woman intends to return to work after maternity leave.
"We know that women's plans can change when the baby arrives. Many employers have told us they feel wary of contacting the woman at home, so they can never be entirely sure what to expect until the maternity leave has expired.
"Flexibility at work cuts both ways. It is essential that there is more support for women with children to continue their careers," she continued.
"But we also want to see a 'green light' that allows employers to contact women during their maternity leave to discuss return plans. Such a 'right to request' for employers will establish a framework for dialogue to benefit women as well as their employers.
"In the interests of women who want to return to work and employers themselves it is vital to have meaningful dialogue much earlier."