Culture eats “Banning things” for Breakfast

Today, the Women and Equalities Committee of the House of Commons has published a report outlining the urgent need to reform the law on pregnancy discrimination, including the need for a “German style system” (a phrase which as unfortunate echoes of the “Australian style points system” on immigration) to make it harder to make women redundant during pregnancy or maternity leave.

The report is laudable in its aims and timely in its publication but (a little like Karl Marx) it draws the wrong conclusions from its analysis. It’s reported major conclusion is the lazy politician’s “We don’t like something – let’s ban it”.

UK employment law is absolutely explicit on the issue of pregnancy. It is automatically unfair to dismiss a female employee if the reason is because she is pregnant, has given birth recently, is breastfeeding or is on maternity leave. Women have an absolute right to return either to their own job or one of the same status, terms and conditions after a period of maternity leave. And in a redundancy situation, women on maternity go to the top of the queue in terms of redeployment (probably the only situation where employers not only can, but must, positively discriminate).

Where the system does let women down is that, if an employer does flout or ignore the law, the Employment Tribunal system has been priced beyond reach for most women (in fact most employees of either sex) to seek redress – allowing bad employers to continue to behave in this way. To be fair, this is something that the report does recognise. Reforming the tribunal fees system so that employees could access justice would be a quick and easy win (and also benefit good employers as I suggested here).

Much, much more important than that though, is a need for a change in business culture. Instead of seeing pregnant women as a “problem” we should take at a positive approach to the situation. We talk a lot in HR about things like retaining talented employees, flexible working and workforce development. It’s time we started putting some of that into practice. And if we want to encourage women back into the workforce, we need to be positive about making sure that fathers are involved in childcare, utilising things like the already existing Shared Parental Leave rules. And while we shouldn’t fail to recognise that – especially in a small business – losing a key employee for up to a year can cause problems, it’s not as if babies are a new thing or that we don’t get plenty of warning (and hence time to plan).

Culture change does take time – and businesses can’t solve all society’s issues. But HR can start the process of creating a different business mindset. And until the mindset is changed, changes in the law will not have the desired effect.

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