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As a young woman in the workplace, I have always said that what would make the most difference, in my lifetime, to help achieve gender equality would be a revolution in maternity and paternity rights, and properly funded child care.

The focus of this blog will be the former. A blog covering both has the potential to go on and on!

Employment lawyer

So, maternity and paternity rights: and - just as important - what rights do women returning to work after maternity have? How do employers ensure that maternity leave is not the end of a woman’s career?

A summary of rights for maternity leave and those returning to work can be found here. It is well known that flexible working, part-time, job sharing, compressed hours and home working are the norm in the public sector. The private sector, however, remains rather hit and miss.

Early this year, I attended the Scottish Young Lawyer’s Association’s Women in Law Evening. The focus of much of discussion was around what can be done to assist mother's back into the workplace. Can we finally drag the private sector, albeit kicking and screaming, to accept modern ways of working flexibly?

Solicitor General, at the time, an experienced Procurator Fiscal, expressed her disbelief that the private sector had still not caught up with the public sector when it comes to flexible working and options available for women returning from maternity leave. In particular, she said, given that the Crown Office – who have a majority of female staff, many of whom work part-time, job share or work flexibly – are responsible for ensuring that Courts all across Scotland have Prosecutors available during set Court times, every day, to prosecute crime in Scotland. Surely if they can make it work, any business can?

Undoubtedly there has been a change over recent years. In fact, one of the other speakers advised that in her workplace, in the private sector, there was around 175 different ways, company wide, in which women, and men, worked flexibly. Again showing, it can be done.

Indeed Ernst and Young, a global leader in assurance, tax, transaction and advisory services, is leading the way in their commitment to changing the way the private sector operates. They are clear that there is a business case for changing the way we work. They believe that flexible working allows the company to grow. This change in culture has resulted in many top executives, men and women, working flexibly. This reduces any stigma attached to flexible working, it becomes the norm, ensuring that women returning from maternity leave are not seen as difficult, or a problem or not committed due to their flexible working request.

However, while there are leading and inspiring examples of good practice in the private sector, in general, is a bit of a lottery for women returning from maternity leave. Some companies are good, and some are bad. This is simply not the case in the public sector where flexible working, part-time and job share are the norm. There is no judgment made of women, or men, with childcare, or other, responsibilities seeking to work in a different way.

However too often in small and medium sized private employers there are no clear policies and no precedents. Inevitably, this results in women struggling in the workplace, leading to isolation and job dissatisfaction. In the end, private businesses lose women employees due to their failure to appreciate the reality of women’s lives.

Decisions on flexible working requests are often made at the whim of a Manager, with no real radical thought about how it could work, how different and more productive the workplace could look and feel. “That’s how it’s always been done”; “Part-time working is not possible as your post is full-time” are comments I see too often when representing women seeking to work flexibly.

In many cases there is no good reason for an employer to refuse a request for flexible working. Too often it is a failure to look and think out of the box.

For too long working flexibly has been seen as working less. However, nothing could be further from the truth, working flexibly allows employees greater control over how to get their work done in the most efficient manner. Surely that cannot be a bad thing?

In a world of ever increasing technology – 24/7 access to email and internet, mobile phones and laptops there is no reason why women, and men, cannot work from home, job share or work part-time. In fact, it is well known that part-time and job share workers often work more hours, and not less, than their contracted hours when compared with their full time equivalents.

The battle for true equality in the workplace continues. However there are glimmers of hope and top companies willing to lead from the front. To ensure that this is the norm though, rather than the exception, it is hugely important for women, and men, who have the opportunity to change the culture in their workplace to do so. In particular those managers who sit in the board room and make the decisions. Decide to change. Decide that you are the person who is going to revolutionise the culture in your organisation. Decide that you are going to make a difference, leaving a legacy for those women and men coming after you, and take one more hammer blow to the glass ceiling that still exists in the workplace.

Blog by Jillian Merchant, Employment Lawyer

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