OPINION: Flunking the maternity test

Peter Stanford

The Equal Opportunities Commission is launching an investigation into discrimination in the workplace against pregnant women. Perhaps it is inappropriate for a man to write about maternity leave, but, hey, let's not be sexist. It is, after all, something I have experienced both as a husband and an employer.

The first of these was much simpler. Everything was done according to the book, but there is still no legislating for male colleagues who refer to maternity leave as holiday. Perhaps they'd like to go through labour and see if they still saw it as the equivalent of time on a beach. Neither can they be stopped from strengthening their positions at the expense of female colleagues on maternity leave - poaching clients, gently letting them know that the woman in question has her mind on other things now, and the like.

As an employer my first instinct, therefore, is always to do my utmost to accommodate a mother-to-be, but I suspect many small and medium-sized charities will have faced some of the questions that flit through my mind when a female colleague delivers the good news. My own observation is that as a sector we tend to employ a larger than average number of women of child-bearing age for a whole variety of reasons. So when one member of what is probably a small, over-stretched team goes, we face tough choices.

Recruit, but budgets are tight and the cost of finding maternity leave cover can be prohibitive. Moreover, I've found there aren't many talented people in the temporary jobs market. You can muddle through and expand your resources to fill the vacancy and, in the process, build up resentment among other staff at being put upon.

When you are anything less than a large organisation, there's no perfect solution, but somehow we get by. The danger is, however, that, perhaps unconsciously, the experience sticks in your mind so the next time you are faced with two equally able candidates for a job, one a man and one a woman, it nags at you. All solutions to this dilemma from the EOC will be gratefully received.

- Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards.

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