Employers ‘continuing to treat women who have children as a burden’

Most businesses stick to maternity pay minimums, say experts – but new survey suggests some offer up to 36 weeks on full pay

Many employers are continuing to treat women who have children as a “burden”, according to industry experts – but a significant number of “enlightened” businesses are offering enhanced parental leave packages that go far beyond minimum requirements.

Research by Money Guru found many employers saw maternity pay in particular as a way to increase inclusion and engagement – but elsewhere, a lack of commitment to enhancing parental pay packages was indicative of a regressive attitude to parenthood.

Management consultancy Accenture was the top employer when it came to maternity leave, according to the research, offering 36 weeks of leave on full pay.

Transport for London followed close behind, with a package of 26 weeks’ fully paid maternity leave, 13 weeks’ statutory maternity pay and a possible additional 13 weeks’ unpaid leave, regardless of length of service. Others on the list boasted on-site crèches or baby hampers, in addition to enhanced leave.

But Joe Levenson, director of communications and campaigns at the Young Women’s Trust, said although some “enlightened employers are upping their games and offering more generous maternity leave” packages, many of Britain’s bosses “are continuing to treat women who have children as a burden”.

“Tackling maternity discrimination and discriminatory treatment against mothers is in all our interests and would benefit parents, businesses and the economy as a whole,” Levenson said.

To be eligible for statutory maternity pay (SMP), employees are required to be on payroll in the ‘qualifying week’ – the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth – as well as having been continuously employed for at least 26 weeks up to any day in the qualifying week and earning at least £116 a week (gross) in an eight-week ‘relevant period’. 

SMP for eligible employees can be paid for up to 39 weeks, with employees usually receiving 90 per cent of their average weekly earnings (AWE) before tax for the first six weeks followed by a rate of £145.18 or 90 per cent of their AWE – whichever is lower – for the remaining 33 weeks.

Danielle Ayres, employment solicitor at Gorvins Solicitors, told People Management she had seen a growing trend among larger employers of offering a longer period of full pay, but said the vast majority stuck to standard levels of SMP as required by law.

“What I have found is a lot of employers are quite strict on benefits during maternity leave, but all that should be affected during that time is pay,” Ayres added. “Things like childcare vouchers, use of a company car and pensions should remain unchanged.”

She said she often had to “fight a battle” with employers over holidays, as women on maternity leave still accrue days off and can use holidays following their leave. 

Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, an advocacy group supporting women who have suffered pregnancy or maternity discrimination, said many women were looking for employers who were "supportive of their maternity leave" and valued their contribution when they returned in the same way as before they left.

"Employers need to buck up and ensure their workplaces work for mothers if they are serious about closing their gender pay gap,” Brearley said. "As a result, they will see productivity and profits soar."

The Money Guru survey also ranked firms on how generous their shared parental leave (SPL) policies are.

Introduced by the government in 2015, SPL allows new parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks’ pay between them following the birth or adoption of a child. 

Retail platform Etsy ranked highly on the list, reportedly offering a “gender blind” policy to all employees that provided 26 weeks’ fully paid leave to be taken in the first year of a child’s life. 

According to a recent poll of workers conducted by professional services firm Aon, benefits including generous parental leave packages and flexible working hours were becoming more important to employees.

The survey also found almost all (98 per cent) employers said their workers “now expect more flexible working hours”, while nearly nine in ten (89 per cent) “expect agile/home working to be available”. Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) called for improved maternity, paternity and parental leave policies from their employer. 

However, research from University College London (UCL) found supposedly generous SPL policies were leaving staff disillusioned because they came with too many caveats. 

Dr Katherine Twamley, a social sciences fellow at UCL, spoke with couples while researching SPL policy and found many had been left feeling “cynical” after it transpired their employer’s SPL deal was not as good as it appeared on the surface.

Many, for example, only offered enhanced SPL pay in the first six months, and half (51 per cent) of the pregnant women surveyed felt it did not make sense for their partner to take SPL.

Twamley also told People Management that although mothers often said they were offered lots of guidance and advice on maternity leave, “the fathers weren’t getting that information”.