Mothers face greater discrimination in finding a job in Britain than disabled people, Asian women and the elderly, a new report has claimed. But is the raft of legislation designed to help women actually adding to their difficulties?
An interim report from the government-commissioned Equalities Review has found that women returning to work after starting a family face the highest 'personal employment penalty' of any group in society - they are around 40 per cent less likely than the average white, able-bodied man to be offered a post.
Single women find it no harder to find a job than single men. Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, however, face 'a penalty' of 29 per cent; for the disabled it is 16 per cent.
But women with children under 11 and a partner are 37 per cent more likely to be unemployed, while the figure for lone mothers in the same situation is 41 per cent, according to an analysis of labour market trends by Professor Richard Berthoud, a research fellow at the Institute for Economic and Social Research at Essex University.
The review was set up last year by Prime Minister Tony Blair and Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, was asked to chair it in a private capacity.
A final report will be published in the autumn of 2006 which will make public policy recommendations to deal with the causes and effects of inequality.
It will also look at how to deal with new challenges such as the collection of genetic data, an ageing population and the increasing number of carers, and what to do when support systems fail.
But evidence suggests that the review's focus on policy recommendations intended to protect and promote women in the workplace could only make matters worse for them in the real world.
Last year the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, which represents the UK'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..
What's more, almost a quarter (22 per cent) of agencies reported that discrimination is actually are getting worse for women and four out of 10 said that things are not improving.
Legal experts have warned that for many firms, particularly small or start-up businesses, the growing burden of legislation simply provide compelling reasons not to recruit women of child-bearing age at all.
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.
New measures to be introduced in April 2007 will only put further pressure on employers by extending maternity leave, something that is bound to damage the employability of women even more as companies count the financial and operational cost of a longer maternity absence.
Another factor stacking the deck against women is the recent spate of high-profile sex discrimination cases. 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.
The net effect, as a study by Silvia Pezzini of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) argued in a report last year, is that 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 their employability.
At the same time, however, an increasing number of women are turning their backs on conventional nine-to-five working in a bid to invent their own working patterns. .
A 2005 survey by recruitment and HR consultancy Hudson of more than 1,000 UK employees and 500 employers has found the majority (84 per cent) of professional women believe the nine-to-five routine is being spurned by their gender.
They are instead preferring to follow a career path offering flexibility and professional autonomy rather than fit in with the demands of the corporate world.
Almost half of the female professionals polled did not expect to be working full-time in 2010.
Geraldine Hetherington, chief operating officer at Hudson UK, said: "Many women have tasted corporate life and have decided there are better ways of making their mark on the world than following the traditional working model set before them.
"It's not just the demands of family life that are encouraging women to reject working conventions in favour of their own methods; in order to have more control over where, when and how they work, they are setting up their own businesses, retraining or pursuing a 'portfolio' career."