Page last updated at 16:19 GMT, Sunday, 18 October 2009 17:19 UK

Are women paying for sexism laws?

By Clare Matheson
Business reporter, BBC News

Old style sexism has "died a death" in the city - so says the deputy chairman of fund management firm JO Hambro.

Nichola Pease
Equality laws are holding women back, says Nichola Pease

In fact, controversially, Nicola Pease, 48, suggests that red tape is now holding women back rather than helping them to get ahead.

The mother-of-three, who has been working in the City of London since the 1980s, made the comments to MPs investigating the issue of Women in the City.

But has sexism really left the financial sector?

"Prejudicial attitudes in flexible working structures and discriminatory pay practices mean that today women suffer an 80% pay gap with regards to bonuses," says Kat Banyard, campaign director at the Fawcett Society.

Pay battle

Ms Banyard says that, despite having equal pay rights enshrined in law since the 1970s, a pay gap still exists and the law is not strong enough.

"As a result, companies are not required to check that they are paying equally, so it's absolutely crucial we have mandatory pay audits," she adds.

"The Equality Bill currently going through Parliament is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform equal pay law we cannot afford to miss."

Yet Ms Pease has urged MPs not to wade further into the issue, as legislation now meant some employers believed hiring a woman was a "nightmare".

Long maternity leave and fears of costly discrimination action were just two of the issues Ms Pease highlighted as factors that deterred firms from taking on women.

"Blue chips and PLCs will do the proper HR thing to manage people's careers - keep in touch policies, backfilling," says human resources director Tony Molloy.

"But smaller companies are not constrained by the law and will find they can't do some of the things blue chips do.

"For SMEs, it's much more difficult. For example, backfilling maternity leave can be a problem. If you can't fill a post you must recruit and that can cost around £5,000 to get the interim worker, then there's the salary for the mother on top," he adds.

Big changes

He also points out that a woman returning to the City from maternity leave now will be facing a very different world from the one she left 12 months ago as a result of the current financial crisis.

It was horrible going back to work. I was upset and quite sad for some time
Louise Wadsworth, working mother

"The whole structure of the business may be completely different, how does a firm or a worker manage in that kind of situation?"

So should maternity leave be cut back to 12 weeks like in the US, as Ms Pease suggested?

"By limiting leave you are putting women and their children and their financial stability at risk," says Ms Banyard.

In fact, the Fawcett Society would call for more equality of leave for fathers and mothers as, by limiting men's leave and encouraging women to take on the role of carer, legislation is actually reinforcing a stereotypical view in reality.

Instead, men and women should be able to choose who takes on that role, says Ms Banyard.

As for Mr Molloy, while he does not support the US system, he does believe the 12-month period enshrined in law is "a bit too long".

Turmoil

Louise Wadsworth, a Briton working as an operations manager in Singapore, found herself in a similar situation to American women when she had her daughter in 2007.

"After the 12 weeks maternity leave, I took two weeks annual leave and then used more annual leave to work a four day week for two months. It was horrible going back to work. I was upset and quite sad for some time," she says.

Pregnant woman
Does motherhood limit a woman's career?

"I kept telling my husband that we could manage without my salary and he agreed, but proceeded to describe life without it as pretty bleak. In the end I choose to carry on."

But despite the emotional turmoil of returning to work, she also agrees that a year is too long for women to leave the workplace as it could mean too much of a financial burden for the company.

"I think it is reasonable that after a limited amount of time, say three months, that the company doesn't have to pay for the employee's maternity leave," Ms Wadsworth adds.

"But I believe a company should have an obligation to leave a person's job open for 12 months."

Empty posts

But why are women not progressing to the top of companies?

According to the Fawcett Society just 12% of the top jobs at FTSE 100 companies are held by women.

The higher up you go the easier it is to work flexibly
Kat Banyard, Fawcett Society

Ms Pease argues that this is not a result of sexism or an old boys' network, but down to women opting to take a career path more compatible to the demands of a family.

"I would love to give everyone flexible working practices, but there are certain jobs which have unsociable hours," she told MPs.

"Conference calls at various times to accommodate the global nature of business. There's a lot of travel. Those are the commercial realities".

The Fawcett Society believes Ms Pease is not entirely "appreciative" of what flexible working means.

Ms Banyard argues that fitting hours around the job - not working less - brings greater rewards to companies and workers. Staff get more family time and a morale boost while the company benefits through less staff turnover and higher productivity.

Meanwhile, Mr Molloy says many weapons can be used to tackle "unsociability", particularly new technology - for example video conferencing can be used to cut down travel.

He also points out that as workers progress through a company the demands of a family probably do lead to fewer women moving up the ladder, leaving a smaller pool to recruit from at the top.

Heavy-handed?

But he is wary of bringing in quotas for boards.

"You would have to have positive development practices to help women get on and remain at a comparable level to men," says Mr Molley.

"If not, you'd have to look externally for candidates and, once you start recruiting outside, that is demoralising for internal staff."

Men and women's shoes
Women are in the minority on blue chip boards

And when you get to the top of the chain, you should find it easier to cope with family commitments, says the Fawcett Society.

"The higher up you go the easier it is to work flexibly as you're the one in charge, and inevitably you'll have more resources to afford flexibility," says Ms Banyard.

Ms Wadsworth agrees, pointing out that possibly the fact that Ms Pease and her husband are much better off than the average worker has helped ease the burden of childcare and childcare costs.

"I agree that with more cash and/or more affordable child care it's a lot easier to remain working and be a parent," she says.

"At the end of the day, it's a choice. I'd be a lot richer in monetary terms without Alex but a lot poorer as a person."



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