Shared parenting ‘could work against women’

Legislation allowing dads to share the second half of maternity leave with mums could work against women, says a leading employment lawyer.

Legislation allowing dads to share the second half of maternity leave with mums could work against women, says a leading employment lawyer.

Laura Livingstone, of Davenport Lyons, London, says she believes one of the big breakthroughs for working mums was extending maternity leave to a year, giving women more time to adjust to being a parent and to get over the weaning, teething and, in most cases, breastfeeding stages.

If men can take the last six months of maternity leave she fears a return to “the bad old days” when many mums had to rush back to the office when they were not ready.

She doubts how popular shared parenting will be when it comes in in April, however, since most men still outearn their partners. “If men are in the middle of their career,” she adds, “I think there will be not many who are prepared to give up three to six months in the office.”

Laura, one of’s employment law experts, thinks proposals to extend flexible working legislation to all employees are likely to prove much more popular. However, she adds that although some companies already offer this benefit, “an awful lot” in her experience are not flexible and do not want to be. She adds that it can depend on the nature of the business.

Laura, who is due to speak at a seminar on flexible working at Workingmums LIVE on 8th March, says she is definitely seeing more women being made redundant during maternity leave, including having flexible work requests turned down so that they cannot get the work life balance they want. “Companies are being bolder about making people on maternity leave redundant,” she says. “Because so many redundancies are being made companies feel more relaxed about wholesale cutting. They can say it is not to do with the person being on maternity leave.”

She adds that she has seen a number of cases where companies hire an interim person to allegedly cover a woman’s maternity leave and then “find that new person exciting” while the person on maternity leave is “out of sight, out of mind”. They then make the person on maternity leave redundant and to avoid claims against them, they claim their job has ceased to exist and get them to sign a compromise agreement which includes a tax-free sum of money, but waives their right to make a case for unfair dismissal. Sometimes, she says, the amount of money offered is quite small. “It can be tempting to take it if you are on maternity leave and at the part where your SMP runs out. It’s only later that you realise it is harder than you thought to find a flexible new job,” she says. She has dealt with cases where the woman has set up her childcare around an agreement to come back on flexible working and then subsequently had to find a new job which fits in with those childcare arrangements.

It’s not just individuals who are badly treated around flexible working that Laura deals with. She also acts for companies and says some women have overly high expectations of flexible working legislation. “They think companies should accommodate any form of flexible working without considering the impact on their colleagues or the business,” she says. “It gives women a bad name. There needs to be flexibility on both sides where flexible working is concerned.”

She says companies generally approach her with genuine concerns about making people redundant, what benefits staff on maternity leave are due, how they manage their return and advice on flexible working. In fact, flexible work concerns are more common than advice around redundancies, she states. “Companies are worried about what to do if they feel they cannot accommodate a request or that it will inconvenience other colleagues,” she says.

She advises them that, although there are several grounds on which flexible working requests can be turned down, they need to have evidence to back them up. One of her clients, for instance, had a survey done to show that the busiest time for their shop was after 4pm so a request to stop working before that would impact the business. “They can’t just say that that is the case. They need to back it up,” says Laura. She also advises them to offer individuals whose requests are difficult to accommodate a trial period which will allow them to demonstrate that it is not working.

Flexible working
Laura adds that many women still don’t realise that they need to go through a formal process to request flexible working as this gives them certain rights to appeal decisions. They also don’t prepare enough for negotiations around flexible working, she says. “They should come into a meeting with their manager about flexible working with a plan to show that they have considered the needs of their team. It is then more likely to be accepted,” she says.

In addition, they need to talk about flexible working before they go on maternity leave and sound out their company before they set up childcare arrangements, she says. “Often women set up childcare arrangements, assuming a flexible work request will be accepted when they return. If their request is then rejected it can prove costly if they can’t change the childcare or they are made redundant and have already had to pay a nursery deposit.”

She also recommends that women on maternity leave keep in touch with their office. This does not mean, she says, that they need to come into the office for a day here and there. Just a chat on the phone or emails can be just as important. “It helps to ensure they are not forgotten,” she says. “They need to be aware that just because they are on maternity leave their job is not necessarily safe.”

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