The Times

August 8 1999

Why maternity leave doesn't help women

Ruth Lea
The Sunday Times

I have never been a feminist in the way the word is normally understood. I am a successful woman, yes, but my driving force has always been the fierce independence and determination bred into me by my small family-farm background. Farmers are self-sufficient and self-motivated, otherwise the cows do not get milked.

There were some extraordinarily strong-minded women on both sides of my family. Most worked on farms (and were sometimes the "boss") for most of their lives. The idea that women could not "achieve" never occurred to me as I tore round the Cheshire countryside on my somewhat unruly horse (usually sans protective headgear - no nanny state then, nor indeed nanny parents). From an early age I made my own, quite independent, decisions and I take a dim view of people who give me unsolicited and gratuitous advice. I made my career through my own energy and effort.

Along with many of my female contemporaries, I fought hard for success and equality. We persevered and succeeded, sometimes after great disappointments. It was a feeling of being undervalued and under-promoted by the civil service (maybe because of sex discrimination, or because I had the wrong personality, or because the civil service was short-sighted) that made me jump ship mid-career to Mitsubishi Bank, where my career took off.

I would like to think the present generation of women will be able to achieve as much as my pioneering one did. But I have my doubts. In many senses, there are more opportunities than ever for women - being female and non-Oxbridge, I was a bit of a rarity at the Treasury in the early 1970s - but I have begun to believe that the feminist agenda that opened up so much is now in danger of closing down those opportunities.

Last year, even before the government's latest plans for "family friendly" working policies were announced, we at the Institute of Directors (IoD), where I am head of policy, conducted a survey asking whether maternity laws made women of childbearing age more or less attractive than others as potential employees. A whopping 45% said it made women less attractive to employ and an employer acquaintance of mine said drily that "they are just the honest ones".

Women employers were just as likely as men to say they were less keen on employing young women. This is not a case of women making their own success and then selfishly pulling up the ladder. It represents the everyday realities of life for people running a small business.

I am constantly hearing tales of employers exasperated by having to rejig a whole department's work to accommodate a woman who wants to go on maternity leave only to find, after months of disruption, that she is not coming back. One recently told me that a senior member of his team had gone off to have a baby. He could not promote her deputy, the person most suited to run things in her absence, as he would have to demote him on her return. So a third person was appointed to head the team temporarily. Ultimately, the woman did not come back anyway; two people had to be reshuffled and there were months of scraping by when a smooth transition could have been effected in the first place. Such stories do not help women.

Last Wednesday Stephen Byers, the trade and industry secretary, announced an even more extensive "family friendly" package, which will undoubtedly affect mothers more than fathers. Parents will be entitled to 13 weeks' leave within the first five years of the birth of their child. In small firms, where it is unlikely that there are dedicated personnel officers, general managers (who are struggling with the rest of the business) will have to administer the absences and obtain cover if necessary. Parental leave will undoubtedly mean higher costs and burdens for small businesses and may prove a fatal blow to some.

The government estimates that 35% of mothers may take the leave and just 2% of fathers. Inevitably the parental leave provisions will be another factor discouraging small employers from taking on women. Even more worrying is the reduction in the qualifying period for "extended" maternity leave from two years' employment to one.

It goes without saying that women who have children should have employment rights. Maternity rights are fundamental to a civilised society. But with "extended" maternity leave, in which the woman can take off nearly 40 weeks, the consequences can be devastating for a small business. Employers have to arrange cover, at considerable cost and difficulty if the woman is senior and/or a specialist. Employers have to leave the job open for the woman (or an equivalent job if there are redundancies or restructuring during the period), even though she is under no obligation to return.

This is simply unfair. But feminists, with their blinkered, man-hating view of life, refuse to listen. At a feminist meeting in the 1970s, when I suggested that the civil service was quite "kind" to women, there were sharp intakes of breath and a lot of teeth-sucking. When I said recently at an IoD Women in Business conference that there were certain advantages to being a woman in business, I was nearly lynched.

Of course I appreciate feminism; I am in my early fifties and grew to adulthood in the 1960s, when feminism was rapidly gaining significance as a political movement. But much of the feminist agenda has done women no favours. When I say this I am attacked. I am not married and have no children, so people act as though I have no right to comment on family policy.

When I pointed out the problems with the government's policy, Margaret Hodge, the junior employment minister, said my views were "outrageous". But to me it is simple common sense. The balance between employer and employee is wrong. An employer said to me recently: "When I pay a barber to cut my hair, he has obligations and I have rights. But when I pay an employee for his or her services, I have the obligations and he or she has the rights." Mad, isn't it?

It is also bad for women. Family friendly legislation sounds alluring. But it will end in fewer opportunities for women, not more.

Ruth Lea

Copyright 1999, Times Newspapers Ltd.