The poisoned chalice of paid maternity leave

Once again the maternity pay rights debate has flared up, with MEPs being urged to vote against plans to introduce 20 weeks maternity pay for all women.

Of course, in an ideal world, all women would be entitled to a full year's worth of maternity pay; their partners or mums or whoever would be able to take off three months on full pay to support them.

But this is not an ideal world. The harsh reality is that for many employers, the prospect of supporting women through months of maternity pay is not an attractive or even a viable option (particularly if they're a small business).

I've been on both sides of the fence, as a boss and an employee; I know it's a pain when one of your employees goes on maternity leave and you have to find someone to cover for them for the best part of a year because they keep delaying their return. What often happens is the company you're working for seizes the opportunity not to cover the absentee and the remaining staff end up doing their work as well as their own, which causes hostility and resentment.

And I also know what it's like to have given birth and be expected to go back to work almost immediately or risk losing your job. One woman on the national newspaper where I used to work was fired the day she returned. Another friend was fired while she was on maternity leave; another was taken to a tribunal. And the horror stories go on.

If women of child-bearing age are given rights to longer maternity leave, this may affect their chances of employment with small businesses or those larger firms stuck in the stone age. I'm not for one minute saying that's right; it shouldn't make any difference to your employability whether you have kids or not, of course it shouldn't. But the truth is, even in 2010, for some companies, it does.

I'm not sure what the solution is – more company creches would be a start, obviously. Meanwhile, I'm worried it may be a case of be careful what you wish for for many women who may suddenly find it that much harder to get a job if their employer suspects they will be taking off even more paid leave to have a baby. Mums and mums-to-be are still being discriminated against, and that's shocking.

I'd love to hear your views.

written by Liz Jarvis