Businesswomen warn that recent moves may harm recruitment of women

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Moves to improve rights and conditions for women at work have caused disquiet in some circles. A group of influential businesswomen led by the Institute of Directors has voiced concern that employers may be dissuaded from employing women. Their main stated concerns are:

- Whilst they accept many employees need to balance their home and work obligations, any flexible working arrangements should be left to the employer and the employee to decide on a voluntary and mutually convenient basis
- If particular groups, for example women with young children, are seen to be given special treatment in the workplace then this may cause resentment in other groups of employees, such as carers of elderly parents
- The current maternity regulations are difficult to manage. Employers have to keep a woman's job open when she is on maternity leave, but there is no obligation for her to return. Many women, understandably, do not return to work. The difficulties are likely to be increased when the proposed changes to the maternity regulations are introduced (due in 2003). Under the proposals a woman will need to work for only six months (currently a year) in order to be entitled to "extended" maternity leave of up to a year (currently up to 40 weeks)
- Maternity rights, along with the risk of being taken to an employment tribunal under the Sex Discrimination legislation, can damage women's employability. According to IoD survey evidence this has happened already and is likely to get worse
- One of the biggest problems for working women with young children is the lack of affordable childcare. There is a strong case for more generous tax breaks for childcare provided by employers.

Ruth Lea, Head of the Policy Unit of the Institute of Directors and author of an accompanying note, Women's Employment Rights and the Implications for Employability, said: "We all accept that employees, especially women with children, need a 'work-home' balance and that employers should be encouraged to provide, voluntarily, flexible arrangements. Indeed, according to the OECD, British employers fair very creditably already in the provision of flexible arrangements by international standards. And 40% of working women work part-time in the UK compared with an EU average of 28%. British employers are no laggards in these matters. But there are limitations as to what employers can do - especially those running small businesses dealing with key employees. There is already evidence that women's employment rights - principally maternity rights - are damaging women's employability. And the more those rights are increased the worse this is likely to get."

The group of businesswomen includes:
Mary Ahmad, Director, Corporate HR Partners Ltd
Helen Barrett, Chief Exec and Editor in Chief, Executive Grapevine International Ltd
Alison Beech, Director, Quick White Rabbit Ltd
Margaret Devlin, Managing Director, South West Water
Tina Knight, Nighthawk Electronics Ltd
Caroline Marland, Member of the Policy & Executive Committee, IoD
Yvonne Phillips, Phillips Planning Services Ltd
Stephanie Smye, Branch Chairman, IoD East of England branch
Amanda Walsh, Walsh Trott Chick Smith Ltd

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