The drive to increase maternity rights for women has had almost no effect on the wellbeing of women in Europe, new research has found.
A study by Silvia Pezzini of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), published in the Economic Journal, has found abortion rights and the endorsement of the pill in national public policies have been the biggest contributors to improving the lot of women since 1945.
Birth control rights have caused an increase in women's investment in education, their probability of working, their income levels and their self-reported 'life satisfaction', the research found.
Life satisfaction effects are consistent with changes operating through economic choices, Pezzini said. The data strongly confirm that birth control rights caused an increase in women's investment in education, probability of working and income level.
Women professing religions that are firmly against birth control rights did not exhibit a change in their welfare.
At the same time, other women's rights have been less beneficial. Mutual consent divorce laws have had a negative impact on women's welfare while the granting of maternity rights in the workplace "has had no net effect".
Indeed, Pezzini suggests, any gains that may have been made by the introduction of better employment protection and maternity rights for women has been cancelled out by a reduction in the 'employability' of women.
Empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests that Pezzini is right. A poll last year by HR information provider Croner found that more than eight out of ten HR professionals in Britain believe bosses automatically think twice before employing women of childbearing age.
Meanwhile, the recent spate of high-profile sex discrimination cases also appears to be having an effect, with organisations increasingly wary of hiring women. One City firm of brokers admits that, whereas a few years ago around a quarter of its staff were women, today the number is tiny.
Pezzini research analysed answers by over 450,000 individuals from 12 European countries reporting a self-evaluation of their life satisfaction between 1975 and 1998.
She said that in addition to their historical importance, the results may provide some guidance on the effects of granting women's rights towards development goals of empowerment.