It's hard to be a high-flyer and a mum

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The Independent Online
VICTORIA KIMMINGS, the high-flying stockbroker who claims she was sidelined by her bosses when she returned to work after maternity leave, is not the only one eager to learn the outcome of her sex discrimination case after the end of the five-day industrial tribunal tomorrow. A growing number of employers are becoming concerned about the potential costs of employing women of child-bearing age.

While legislation exists to protect the rights of working women - such as ensuring their rights to maternity leave and to return to the same job after giving birth - the number claiming they have been treated unfairly is rising. So is the number of women resorting to industrial tribunals and compensation claims. That, in turn, is raising fears among employers about the impact such cases will have on all working women.

"Most good employers want to be seen as fair, but they are not charities and must think of their other employees, too," said Ruth Lea, head of the policy unit at the Institute of Directors. "Extreme cases where jobs are left open for long periods - especially when this thwarts someone's promotion - can cause resentment."

There are also cost and productivity implications, she adds. "Professional women face greater problems as it can be very hard to cover a specialist, and when she returns she can find herself very out of touch."

Her concerns are underlined by a recent NOP poll in which 45 per cent of employers said they are reluctant to take on women of child-bearing age.

This finding, however, contrasts starkly with latest data showing that 67 per cent of pregnant women eligible for maternity leave are back at their desks within 10 months. "The problem is that not a lot of employers realise the numbers are so large. Many are nonplussed when the woman returns as there is a widespread expectation that she won't," said Sheila Wild, director of employment policy at the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Most women go back to work with little problem, she said. More senior women, however, are likely to find it harder to adjust their work patterns. And it is these women who are most likely to speak out.

Ms Kimmings, 29, earned pounds 93,000 a year working for ABN-Amro in the City. Two male traders recruited on higher salaries to deal with her best clients while she was on maternity leave were still there on her return - an effective demotion, she claims. Her name was deleted from the company's internal telephone directory because it was assumed she would not return. The tribunal heard that when she objected, Ms Kimmings' boss told her to accept a lesser role or resign.

When company director Kathleen Mooney asked for maternity leave she was dismissed. It was the second time she had become pregnant - evidence she was not committed to her job, her boss assumed. In another case, 27 year-old Caroline Vince, a former RAF electrical engineer, won pounds 10,000 compensation after being posted 300 miles away from her husband and new- born son. On returning after maternity leave, Ms Vince found her position had been filled by someone else. She was offered two alternative postings - both many miles away. A tribunal ruled she would not have been moved so far away had she been a man.

"Typical problems for a woman returning to work after maternity leave are that their job has changed in content, status or salary," Ms Wild says. "If it's salary, you can usually do something about it. If the job has changed that's more difficult. The trickiest area is change in status." It can be very subtle. The natural inclination of an employer is to deny it.

Meanwhile, employees are reluctant to air grievances unless they can categorically prove not only that discrimination is happening, but why.

Other problems arise when women return on reduced hours. "If they arrange it so that they can leave early to collect children from childminders or school, some employers use this as evidence they are less committed to the job," said Sophie Robinson, spokeswoman for the Maternity Alliance.

Ms Wild believes the law provides inadequate protection because it is difficult to use. And discrimination is hard to prove - the longer you are away, the greater the likelihood that things have changed. Which is why there is still lobbying from some quarters for even greater legal protection for mothers and mothers to be.

Good news for women, then. But, if Ms Lea is right, only in the short term. "The more complicated and costly it is to employ someone, the less likely it is a company will take that person on," she warns.