Women being held back by equal rights legislation… or by anti-women business owners?

// 18 July 2008

Further to this story, Woman’s Hour had a “conversation” (aka row) between Sylvia Tidy-Harris, the Managing Director of womenspeakers.co.uk and Sarah Veale, Head of Equality and Employment Rights at the TUC.

Sylvia Tidy-Harris basically says, as a small business owner, she’s not willing to pay for maternity leave for her staff. Not that we should be surprised, Tidy-Harris has already admitted to discriminating against women who are potentially fertile (whether or not they are) because they might get pregnant. Seens owning a womb and ovaries is actually considered, by Tidy-Harris and according to her most business owners/leaders, too much of a risk. Tidy-Harris claims her views are OK because she seemingly also believes that it’s

reprehensible for any business to take on a female member of staff, fully aware that at some point she is likely to have a baby, and then discriminate against her the moment she falls pregnant.

The Telegraph

Now I’m all for “don’t come crying to me later” common sense but Tidy-Harris’ position is this – it’s better for businesses to deny women jobs than accept that, lo-and-behold, some women have children. She seemingly doesn’t demand celebacy from her male employees, though, no, just the women getting penalised for having reproductive organs then.

Melissaria has also pointed out, more eloquently than I’m going to do, that Tidy-Harris’s argument is basically that maternity leave for other women cuts back her own profits. So basically her argument is “I am too money fixated to realise women aren’t second class citizens”. Lovely. Oh and it’s not like she’s working her way up tooth-and-claw from impoverished backgrounds – Daddy is the cartoonist Bill Tidy and her start in life was as his business manager. She also makes much of having been step-mum to two girls – but fails to point out she became step-mum when they were 17 and 11 respectively and therefore beyond the infancy stage that maternity leave refers to. Disingenious some?

Oh and she doesn’t, one presumes (and from a quick glance at the photo’s on the website), extend the same rules (no women under 50) to her lucrative speakers business, given one of her companies is womenspeakers which, as does exactly as the name suggests. So it’s just lower paid women she doesn’t want to procreate then – you know those least able to exist without two paying incomes in a family and most at risk of being lone parents.

Meanwhile in response to Katherine Brewer’s original comments, Kamaljeet Jandu from GMB union has said:

“Rather than focusing her comments of Neanderthal attitudes of some employers she is missing the point that maternity and parental rights are good for employers, parents and the wider economy. It seems that Nicola Brewer is penalising women for having babies in employment while implying that women should go ‘back to the kitchen sink’ and have no aspirations for a career. Ms Brewer’s justification for this is a back lash from employers – that they stop employing women of child bearing age.”


Meanwhile Brewer has been somewhat backtracking by claiming, in the Daily Mail of all places, that:

“fathers’ rights should be recognised as well. She said: ‘No one is suggesting that women should not have the rights they have to maternity leave, what we are saying is that dads need a slice of the action too.'” and that if women return to work earlier their partners should get 12 weeks paid paternity.

Daily Mail

Because of course it’s a big of a faux pas for the Chief Exec of the Equalities and Human Rights commission to be dissing women and particularly low paid women who benefit most from maternity and employment protection legislation.

Comments From You

Jess // Posted 18 July 2008 at 3:47 pm

Melissaria has also pointed out, more eloquently than I’m going to do, that Tidy-Harris’s argument is basically that maternity leave for other women cuts back her own profits. So basically her argument is “I am too money fixated to realise women aren’t second class citizens”

While this is true, unfortunately I worry that it won’t make much difference on the ground, as the whole point of a company is explicitly to make money, and so it will act in whatsoever way it can to do so, unless the penalties are too great.

Therefore, we need arguments about how maternity leave and paternity leave and other benefits, are a benefit to the employer as well as the worker. Or much more stringent enforcement of the legislation (ie suing them into compliance).

Luckily there is lots of evidence for this – here’s a paper on the benefits Australian banks have enjoyed since voluntarily introducing paid maternity leave, for example. If anyone knows about cost/benefits it’s a bank.

Mark Heady // Posted 18 July 2008 at 5:30 pm

Maternity Leave

I did not hear the Woman’s Hour discussion, so cannot comment on its tone. However, I do understand the argument some small businesses are making. Is maternity pay is something the employer has to pay or can they reclaim it from the government?

If you only have a couple of employees, you will not be able to share out the work but will have to take on a temp., assuming a tamp will be suitably qualified. This could be a burden a small business would be hard pressed to shoulder.

Then again, a woman posting on the Woman’s Hour message board stated that she was taking her maternity leave and pay because it was a “right”, but she had no intention of returning to work for at least 5 years. I can well understand how this woman’s employer might feel a little “burned” after that experience.

Shea // Posted 18 July 2008 at 7:48 pm

Maternity pay is statutory, i.e paid from national insurance, so it is not a cost, directly borne by the employer. As for their extra member of staff, that is incorrect ——they have to pay the same number of staff even if they get a temp in because they won’t be paying the woman whilst on maternity leave (of course it varies). It is a right, just like sick pay. Its strange that these employers demand such loyalty, when they are in no place to guarantee work for their employees for the next five years.

Amy // Posted 18 July 2008 at 8:11 pm

I’m not sure how maternity pay works but if it’s like statutory sick pay, the government pays it via the employer, and it’s at the employer’s discretion to top it up if they want. So seeing as temps are often paid less than full time employees I don’t see how small businesses are hurt by this financially. I could be wrong about maternity pay being like SSP though.

Regardless of that however I think that as having children is an accepted part of most people’s lives, businesses small or large need to accept that their employees will probably at some point reproduce themselves. So if they go out of business because they haven’t factored parental leave into their budget, I have no sympathy for them. If you can’t go into business and give your employees room to have children, then don’t go into business.

chem_fem // Posted 18 July 2008 at 8:49 pm

A lot of people talk about how hard it is for businesses, but why aren’t people considering how hard it is for parents?

The arrival of a child is a time when people need money and time the most.

zohra // Posted 18 July 2008 at 9:53 pm

Louise, did you mean Nicola Brewer rather than ‘Katherine’ Brewer in your post?

Also, are you saying you don’t agree that extending maternity leave to 12 months while keeping paternity leave at 2 weeks would further entrench gender roles that women should be responsible for children? Because that is basically what the EHRC, and Fawcett, have argued: that the second six months should be (well-paid) transferable parental leave if we really want to transform gender relations. Keeping it as maternity leave (the 12 months I mean), while dads only get 2 weeks, is quite retrograde in my opinion.

As was pointed out in the comments on Jess’ post, the TImes’ headline rather misrepresented the EHRC’s position (the the story itself does a bit better when you read it through).

ConservaTorygirl // Posted 18 July 2008 at 10:31 pm

chem_fem you’re so right.

On a macro policy level, when we’re not talking about individual women in a wide variety of circumstances, the needs of businesses and economy get put before the needs of children and families who will then go on to become future taxpayers and workers…

Lindsey Spilman // Posted 19 July 2008 at 11:03 am

Maybe they should give both parents 6 months leave each. That way they would not be any better off money wise by employing men only. I think the government needs to pay everyone a new parent allowance when they become a parent. I have never wanted children, that is why I do not have a problem with others having lots of them. Someone has to have them. It appears that women are always criticized for there reproductive choices. There are always negative things said about women who choose to have no children, and there are negative things said when women have lots of children. The reason for this I think is because they want every woman to have 2 so that every man gets to have 2 each, and have the woman look after them. I actually think that the state should support those that have lots of children and society should be fully excepting of women who choose to have no children, and to those that chose to have 6 children. Instead of trying to fit every one into a 2 children one of each family.

CMK // Posted 19 July 2008 at 11:34 pm

Smaller employers can claim back all of the statutory maternity pay plus an admin fee. Large employers can claim back 92% of SMP. http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/employers/employee_pregnant.htm#18a These costs are rather small in real terms.

The main stumbling block for many employers is their attitude rather than costs. They dislike change especially where it limits their options.

The easy way to solve this is to reduce or remove the disparity between the genders. Where we assume both are parents with equal rights and responsibilities employers will change their behaviour (and complain equally about men taking the time off…..). Biology obviously has to be considered.

I am not convinced that giving parents more time off at this stage in the child’s life is better than giving them time off later on in life.

As a society we need to rethink how we care for our children as for many parents the realities of balancing duties for work, children, partners, dependant’s and themselves are not feasible (for them, their children or us!).

Qubit // Posted 20 July 2008 at 8:46 pm

I think businesses dislike maternity leave is part of the long hours culture. Even while working in a shop, paid by the hour, I found myself doing unpaid overtime and working through some breaks. This is expected and part of any job. If a women is the primary carer of the child she is likely to work less overtime and have other constraints on her time. Also maternity leaves means the firm is losing an experienced employee. I have heard of a rare case of a firm going under due to a need to provide maternity leave (it was quite a tragic case where the women in question kept miscarrying).

It seems odd though, in the days of high technology where almost any programme can be run remotely and very few jobs really require a physically presence that our ability to perform is judged on the time spent in an office. I see this changing in the future and this will help equality as the primary career of a child will be able to work from home.

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds