How far we have come with maternity and leave, and how far there is to go

2 June 2014

In recent discussions about making Heathrow operational 24 hours a day, we were reminded of previous comments from Mr El-Baker, the Chief Executive of Qatar Airlines, who reportedly said that female cabin crew are banned from getting married during the first 5 years of their employment with the purpose of stopping them becoming pregnant.  Mr El-Baker said, "we used to allow this and a lot of people started to get married and then two to three months later they were pregnant so we were losing a lot of trained people that we had then to stop them flying. We had to put a stop to this. But after five years they can get married to anybody they want."

Maternity leave does seem to be something that still creates strong feelings.  I have lost count of the newspaper articles about maternity leave and pay, most of which are grossly inaccurate stating or implying that companies must pay huge amounts of maternity pay when in fact statutory maternity pay is fully paid for by the government through the employer).  Barely a week goes by without some comments about length of maternity leave, the latest being the Chief Executive of Thomas Cook plc, Harriet Green, stating that women lose confidence if they take a year’s maternity leave and this is why it felt a bit too long to her. 

Whilst her advice to women about deciding what you want to do and not caring about doing everything are common sense (she said she chose to run businesses which means she does not focus on domestics such as baking and making curtains for example), a comment about new mums losing confidence during maternity leave is perhaps somewhat strange from someone who has never taken maternity leave herself.  My personal view would be that confidence is not always the issue. In my experience of talking to clients the more important question is whether maternity returnees or those coming back after a career break to bring up children are given a fair chance in terms of opportunities and lack of prejudice to return and whether they are reintegrated into the workplace at the appropriate level.

Thankfully in the UK women have statutory rights if they feel they have been discriminated against when they apply for a job or if their career is suffering as a result of having children. Female employees of Qatar Airlines are not so fortunate. The world may be their oyster but not if they want to have a family it seems.

For further information, please contact a member of the employment law team.

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