It’s a debate that has raged for over a generation now, that of women as mothers and as players in the workforce. In the UK, it seems confusion reigns in terms of legislation and work practices on this very topic. The Coalition, for example, has removed universal child benefit to encourage women back to work, as they receive a £1,200 childcare tax break per child, once they return. Yet, data analysed by the House of Commons library has revealed that up to 50,000 women who take maternity leave each year are effectively unable to return to their old job, often due to constructive dismissal. In effect, those women who do try to re-enter employment very often discover they no longer have a job, that their post has been downgraded, or that they have not received the pay rises given to less qualified men.
“A hidden disgrace,” was the verdict of shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, 44, who was the first government minister to take maternity leave when she had her second child in 2001. Having had her third child in 2004, she was shocked to find an attitude of hostility towards her maternity leave among senior civil servants. She claims they deliberately made it hard for her to stay in touch and, in her absence, tried to change her working arrangements. “It was sorted out eventually,” she said, “but it shouldn’t have been a battle.”
Aside from the politics around the issue, it is disturbing that mothers – who make up around a fifth of the workforce – should feel they risk being penalised for getting pregnant. Emma Stewart, of the Timewise Foundation, a social enterprise that runs a jobsite and a recruitment agency advertising part-time professional positions, notes: “An even greater challenge faces women who have left work, and are looking to re-enter the job market afresh. So few quality working opportunities are advertised with a part-time or flexible working option in the first place.”
Disturbingly too, women themselves can be quite ready to beat a drum against benefits such as maternity leave. Former Apprentice Katie Hopkins announced that paid maternity leave should be axed and, and women should be entitled to six weeks’ unpaid leave.
“The employer was not consulted in the making of that baby, so I am not quite sure how in the UK the employer has ended up being responsible for paying for it. Having a baby is a luxury in this economic climate, and if you want to purchase that luxury item you need to take responsibility for doing it.”
Of course, women could choose to follow this train of thought, and postpone motherhood for years, however would Britain not eventually suffer the repurcussions of a long-term decline in fertility?
Societies attitude to motherhood is at best confusing. On the one hand, celebrity mothers are praised and applauded and their baby pictures pored over in glossy magazines. But for real mothers in the real world, a warm reception is not guaranteed, they often find themselves under pressure from all sides, and battling to keep a foothold in the job market.
Until governments and employers start taking a more realistic approach to motherhood, it seems the debate and confusion will continue.