Maternity rights are key to employment

Catherine Hakim’s says extending maternity rights is bad for women and employers. But evidence shows that they increase the likelihood of returning to work.

Catherine Hakim’s piece in the new edition of Prospect, published today, suggests that the extension to maternity rights in the Equalities Bill is bad for women and bad for employers. But extensive evidence shows that maternity rights increase women’s likelihood of returning to work

It’s worth noting that though the Equalities Bill strengthens maternity rights, it doesn’t extend maternity leave. Earlier this year Government quietly backed away from its 2006 commitment to extend the period of paid maternity leave from 9 till 12 months within this parliament. But would such an extension of maternity leave be so bad for employers?

Hakim rightly says it would be good for mothers who want to return to the same employer, but doesn’t mention the extensive evidence that maternity rights increase women’s likelihood of returning to work. Studies in the UK have shown that “maternity leave is found to raise the likelihood that women will return to the same employer”; studies across Europe show that longer periods of leave are associated with a greater likelihood of returning to work; and a comparison of the UK, the US (with some of the weakest maternity rights in the Western world) and Japan found that “expansions in family leave … are likely to lead to increased employment of women after childbirth.”

Hakim says that “three decades of maternity protection have barely altered women’s employment patterns.” But the proportion of working age women employed has risen from 56 per cent in 1971 to 70 per cent in 2008. In 1988, 45 per cent of women who worked during pregnancy returned to employment after the birth of a child. By 1996, 67 per cent were returning within 10-11 months, and by 2004, 80 per cent returned to work 13-17 months after giving birth (the differences in months are due to differences in the survey data).

Hakim’s contention is that maternity rights give too much uncertainty to employers, making them more reluctant to hire, and promote, women. Taking the prime responsibility for childcare undoubtedly affects women’s prospects in the labour market. Sharing that responsibility more evenly may be one of the motivations for encouraging men to take more paternity leave, and the Government is pushing ahead with plans to allow women to transfer months six to nine of paid maternity leave to their partners. Hakim says that similar provisions in Sweden have “done little to change sex roles.” But they have encouraged many more men to take time out to care for their children – and Sweden has one of the highest ratios of men to women who take up their parental leave in the OECD.

Combining paid work and parenthood remains a challenge for many families. But parental leave rights are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Our guest writer is Kate Bell, Head of Policy at Gingerbread

UPDATE 24/11:

Catherine Hakim responds on Prospects’ blog

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.