Maternity leave litigation

A British court rules that women have the right to sue employers for sex discrimination if taking maternity leave has a negative impact on their careers.

Published March 13, 2007 7:03PM (EDT)

Having never had a baby, I've always been a bit confused about how maternity leave is supposed to work. I mean, you get paid time off to spend with your newborn, but how do you avoid falling horribly behind in your career? (That may seem like a stupid and obvious question, but it's one that no one seems to have figured out an answer to.)

In England, the Telegraph reports a new development: A high court just ruled that women should be able to sue their employers for sex discrimination if they "fall behind in the queue for promotion because they have taken maternity leave."

According to the Telegraph, time taken for maternity leave must count as "continuous service" at the job and "be included where it affects her promotion." Women also need to be consulted about any changes that happen to their jobs while they're away looking after their babies.

It makes sense to me to try to limit the career damage caused by taking extended time off work, whether because of motherhood or for other reasons. But the idea of suing for sex discrimination makes me wonder what protection there is for the other 50 percent of the population -- if a guy takes time off to be with his newborn, does he have to worry about the effects of paternity leave? If so, what legal recourse does he have?

I don't have personal experience in either British law or baby bearing, but this seems to touch on the primary problem feminists have been running up against for decades: It's hard enough to get equality in the workplace to begin with, but when you throw babies into the equation, everything just gets messier. So what do you think, Broadsheet readers: Is this British decision a step in the right direction?

(The article also talks about a recent ruling that says that "a woman harassed by a customer can take legal action against her employer for failing to protect her." Feel free to take that one on, too.)

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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