Maternity leave 'could be hurting job prospects'

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The Independent Online

The new head of Britain's equalities watchdog has prompted a heated row over gender equality after arguing that the extension of maternity leave has sabotaged women's job prospects.

Nicola Brewer, chief executive of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, faced criticism from union and business leaders after saying rules giving women the right to take up to nine months' paid maternity leave, in force since April 2007, could have the "unintended consequence of making women a less attractive prospect to employers". She asked: "Has policy on maternity leave made too many assumptions about the choices families will make and as a result entrenched stereotypes that it is women who do the caring and men who do the earning?"

Ms Brewer said that she backed rules giving mothers the right to up to a year off work, but said limited paternity leave meant fathers were seen as "good seasoning for a family but not essential for parenting".

Women can currently take maternity leave for a year and are entitled to maternity pay for nine months. The Government has pledged to extend that to a year by the next election and to allow fathers to take up to six months of their partner's leave.

Theresa May, the Tory spokeswoman on equality, said: "The Government's plan to give mothers a year off work while still only giving the father two weeks of leave reinforces an outdated stereotype that it is women who do the caring and men who go to work."

The TUC's general secretary, Brendan Barber, said: "The idea that extending family-friendly rights would hurt women's job prospects is a myth commonly peddled by employers who don't want to employ women of child-bearing age or give male staff time off to spend with their children."

John Cridland, the CBI deputy director general, said: "We believe that great progress has already been made, and that further legislation would be prohibitively expensive for both taxpayers and businesses."

Graeme Leach, of the Institute of Directors, said only a tiny minority of firms discriminated against women. He said: "If people want the best employees you need to treat them very well."