Women will continue to lose until the business world changes

Nicholas Lovell’s admission that he has considered discriminating against women, and his frank discussion of why this is so, is refreshing. Contributions like this are exactly what’s needed to help move the debate around women in the workplace on.

My opinion on maternity rights, and the fact that many women leave work after having children, has usually centred on the argument that if it were made easier for women to juggle work and family, more of them would stay in their jobs.

So big companies and the government need to provide free or subsidised childcare, or at least put policies in place that make it easier and cheaper to care for children while working. In a perfect world, that would happen – there might also be more flexible paternity rights that would help parents spread the childcare more equally between them.

But companies don’t like spending money, and don’t care that women (and men) find it difficult. And Lovell raises the point that there are plenty of smaller employers who do care about women’s rights, but who struggle financially to support them.

He says, “Businesses benefit from a diverse workforce (ages, genders, ethnicities) and avoiding any one group eliminates a large pool of talent. But the risk of having a substantial portion of your workforce away on a legally-protected absence, preventing you from hiring and training a replacement or forcing you pay two salaries, is a huge burden to put on any business, let alone one built on such shaky foundations as a startup.

“And if I worry about this, what will less scrupulous business people do? They’ll do what [Prospect writer] Catherine Hakim warns about and avoid “hiring or promoting younger women at all”.”

This desperately needs addressing. The business world was built for men – its whole structure was conceived of on the assumption that women would look after the house and children, while men earn. Very little about its structure and culture has really changed since women entered the workplace, and since then it’s been a constant battle between the rights of women to flourish and achieve, and the demands of a business world that refuses to compromise.

But people do recognise, as Lovell says, that businesses benefit from diverse, talented people, and the ever-growing technology sector is going to increasingly rely on women who have so far largely spurned it (for whatever reason). The government is introducing an Equalities Bill which is extending maternity leave to three years, but perhaps it also needs to address the financial burden this will put on smaller companies – especially in a sector where innovative start-ups are important.

It’s difficult to know who should pay, but one thing is certain – if you want women to play a full role in the business world, someone will have to. Mothers will continue to leave their jobs, and take long maternity leave, until this struggle between businesses and mothers is somehow resolved. You cannot desire the talent and contribution of female workers while insisting they conform to a structure that was designed to exclude them – its very existence relies on them not working. People like Lovell realise this, and until government and the big business power players do too, women will continue to lose this fight.