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.
It seems that everyone in the HR and Employment Law world in the UK is getting into a bit of a tizz about Shared Parental Leave, which comes into force after Easter. “Does anyone understand Shared Parental Leave?” asked a CIPD blog recently, while employment lawyers are busy falling over themselves to offer seminars on the subject, so that employers can avoid “the baby trap” as one described it. Anyone would think that the entire structure of British industry was about to collapse because some fathers may want to take some time off with their newborns.
The concept of Shared Parental Leave is so simple that Employment Minister Jo Swinson could describe it in a tweet “It’s maternity leave shared between two people”. It is also true to say that the regulations themselves are complicated, partially because they use introduce clumsy new phrases like “continuous leave” and “discontinuous leave” and partially because they attempt to cover every single possible scenario. If followed to the letter, they also introduce some overly formal and bureaucratic procedures.
Confusing and bureaucratic regulations are nothing new in HR and employment law. We work within them all the time – and many organisations, especially smaller ones, bypass the letter of the law to get to solutions that work for both the employer and the individual employee (a fact the government recognised when it got rid of most of the bureaucratic rules around Flexible Working requests).
So why the fuss about this one? Setting aside the cynical view that employment lawyers make money from running seminars on new legislation, the resistance comes from the fact that too many people (including a lot in HR) don’t want to change or recognise the fact that the world of work is changing. Many employers are perfectly happy to take the benefits to them of flexibility (zero hour contracts, contracting services to the self-employed, a tacit acceptance of the fact that employees will work late unpaid and continue to respond to emails in the evening) but aren’t willing to accept the same when staff would like it. Couple this with the “HR says No” attitude still too prevalent among many in the profession and the thought of Shared Parental Leave becomes a doomsday scenario.
I’m not naïve, and I’m sure there will be some teething problems with Shared Parental Leave. But – as with every HR problem – constructive dialogue between the parties will usually sort out the situation, while a blind adherence to procedures and process won’t. It also seems likely that demand for Shared Parental Leave will be small at first, giving people a chance to get used to the new system.
One final thought. Around 20 years ago, the Disability Discrimination Act came into force. Then there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth about all the changes that companies would “have” to make and how it would force them to take disabled people they didn’t want to really employ. The high heavens didn’t fall then, and I don’t expect they will do now.
Social media went crazy over “Harry Potter girl” (her words not mine) Emma Watson and her speech to the United Nations last week about Gender Inequality. Surprisingly for a speech promoting feminism, the majority of negative comments (aside from the hoax “nude photos” campaign) were from other female commentators critical she had watered down the message to make it palatable to men (perhaps the trolls who gave other women such as Carolyn Criado-Perez such grief thought Hermione might turn them into actual trolls).
One area which was suspiciously quiet about the speech however was HR. As a profession we can’t change the world, but we do have a significant influence over the world of work. And within the speech there were a lot of challenges that we should be happy to pick up.
So what can HR do? Here are just a few thoughts:
- Looking at your organisation’s workforce – are there certain jobs/areas that are heavily male or female dominated? And is there a wage/salary discrepancy between the two? If so, is there anything you can or should do to address them?
- What is your attitude to issues like shared parental leave or flexible working? Is it a grudging acceptance that “it’s the law so we’d better do it”, or do you positively promote it as being good for both employer and employee?
- What is the management style of your organisation? If it’s based on aggressive “command and control” with an emphasis on presenteeism and competition rather than collaboration and team work, then what are you doing to challenge and change it?
- Address mental health issues in the workplace. This can be as simple as including mental health in absence management briefings and training. And if you don’t feel fully clued up on mental health, then make it one of your own personal development targets
- Challenge inappropriate behaviours. While the nude calendar on the office wall has been generally consigned to history, there are still many workplaces where “banter” is used to exclude, belittle or isolate those who are “different”.
And do you know what? As I typed that list, I realised that all these are things I’d expect a competent and qualified HR professional to be doing as a matter of course in the organisation that they worked in. So why aren’t we all doing it already?
A few weeks ago, the NZLEAD Twitter chat was about the role and position of women in the workforce. Some of the debate I found quite odd, since it seemed to be focussing on issues that I personally thought were almost dead and buried in the UK – whether men had a problem with women in the workforce, or if women were “debarred” from working in certain occupations. Sadly, it seems I’ve been viewing the world of work through somewhat rose tinted glasses.
Earlier this week, a report was published which attracted a good deal of press attention, suggesting among other things that 40% of UK employers would have reservations about employing a woman of “childbearing age” and that a third of managers would hire a man in their 20s/30s rather than a woman of similar age, due to fears about maternity leave.
Originally, I was going to write a blog about the dubious use of statistics – the research was commissioned by a firm of lawyers who specialise in employment and discrimination claims and who are no doubt suffering a loss of business currently – and it’s interesting that the data itself is not easily available (the source of all the media stories seems to be this press release, which doesn’t provide any evidence to substantiate the claims). And even accepting the data at face value, it’s quite easy to turn the headline into “60% of employers always aim for the best talent, while an overwhelming majority operate non-discriminatory recruitment practices” should you wish to spin the story a different way.
However, it’s not the data but some of the reaction to the news stories that made me re-think my own views. Commenting on the story, Employment Minister Jo Swinson and TUC Leader Frances O’Grady both described businesses who have this attitude to younger women as “dinosaurs”. As a political soundbite that’s probably ok (if a rather lazy and clichéd image), though personally I’d sooner find out why such a high percentage apparently still hold these views rather than attack them for it (I suspect that much of it is based on a misunderstanding of employment rules, something I blogged about here).
But the reaction to Swinson’s comments – most notably here – were of such a vile and personal nature that it made me realise that perhaps I have too positive a view. How very dare she express an opinion, especially as a young woman who (shock horror) had a baby and took maternity leave from her ministerial post. Doesn’t she know that British business is collapsing all around her because women are taking maternity time off?
Clearly the debate hasn’t progressed as much as I thought or hoped.