Job-share victory breaks glass ceiling

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The Independent Online
A ground-breaking settlement announced yesterday will make it easier for women at senior levels to force employers to agree a job-share following maternity leave.

Management at the Zurich Insurance Company has signed a pounds 20,000 out-of- court settlement with marketing manager Janet Schofield, who was refused such an arrangement and claimed sex discrimination.

Although the informal agreement between the company and Ms Schofield will not form a precedent in future cases, the Equal Opportunities Commission, which backed the litigation, believes companies will now think twice before refusing a job-share without good reason.

Ms Schofield, 36, said that during her four years with Zurich at its Portsmouth offices, many people worked hard to ensure equal opportunities. But a few senior managers only paid lip service to the idea: "I was told that if I wanted to work for the company I would have to be prepared to work a seven day week. That made me angry and so I decided to stand up and be counted," she said.

After the birth of her first child in 1995, Ms Schofield sought to return part-time to her job as a marketing support manager with Zurich's life assurance division. She was told there were overwhelming business reasons for insisting that the job should be full-time.

She accepted the validity of management's objections, but tried to set up a job share involving a different post in another department. The company contended there were sound arguments for the pounds 40,000-a-year job being done by one person working full-time. Ms Schofield, of Winchester, Hampshire, disagreed and decided to take the company to an industrial tribunal.

Elizabeth Hodder, deputy chairwoman of the commission, said that access to job-shares and part-time working was a crucial issue for women in senior posts. "If women are ever to break through the glass ceiling, it is essential that employers offer family-friendly policies." She pointed out that women made up 55 per cent of workers in non-manual jobs, but still accounted for only 15 per cent of senior and middle managers.

"Employers have to show strong objective reasons for not making job-sharing available to staff with family responsibilities. Intelligent employers already know that practices which encourage mothers to return to work maximise the return on their financial investment. Keeping the skills and experience of senior staff and reducing retraining and turnover costs is good business sense."

Together with the financial settlement, Zurich has agreed to review its job-share policy for senior staff. Linda Taylor, the company's employee relations manager, insisted that Zurich had a strong commitment to equal opportunities and pointed out that its workforce in Britain was almost exactly 50 per cent cent male and 50 per cent female. Out of 315 managers, 42 were women and two out of 11 senior directors were female, Ms Taylor said.

The company also employed people on part-time and job-share arrangements and allowed flexible working hours for those with family responsibilities. Ms Taylor said the company was happy to agree the settlement with its former employee, but it did so for "commercial and practical" reasons without any admission of liability.