Women who take maternity leave feel disadvantaged, leading lawyer warns

MANY women who take maternity leave still feel disadvantaged when they return to work, according to one of Britain's best known equality and employment lawyers.

Saphieh Ashtiany, the equality and employment lawyer
Saphieh Ashtiany, the equality and employment lawyer

Saphieh Ashtiany, the chairman of the Equal Rights Trust, also warned that large numbers of people from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds don’t feel they belong in the corporate world.

However, Ms Ashtiany who has been awarded an honorary degree from Bradford University, said she was optimistic that attitudes would change as people saw the “stupid waste” of sticking with outdated ways of doing business.

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She made the comments after speaking at Bradford University’s graduation dinner, in which she highlighted the importance of workplace diversity.

Afterwards, she told The Yorkshire Post that companies had to look beyond formal quotas and selection processes and dismantle some of the “virtual barriers” to make everyone feel comfortable at work.

She added: “It’s all about making sure that women who take career breaks, or take maternity leave, actually come back without feeling disadvantaged. It’s shocking that, in the second decade of the 21st century, that the majority of women who take maternity leave are disadvantaged. People from BME backgrounds often still don’t feel very welcome. They don’t feel it’s their world.

“We had a very interesting example of this recently. My daughter was doing access work with one of the major Russell Group universities.

“She took a bunch of kids from an east London school, most of whom were of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin, to the Russell Group university.

She added: “They looked at her, and they said, ‘Miss, where are all the brown people?”

“They weren’t there, so this doesn’t feel like a place where I am going to be comfortable.”

She believed businesses should support the steps they are already taking towards promoting equality and diversity.

“But you also have to try to put yourselves in the shoes of those who are experiencing the difficulties,” she added.

“I think there’s a lot the Government could do, both in terms of soft law, and also in terms of hard law.”

Ms Ashtiany said that Prime Minister Theresa May had expressed support for measures to promote diversity.

“To be fair to her, our female Prime Minister says an awful lot about that,’’ she said.

“She’s on record of talking about how she disapproves of ‘the men’s club’, that she disapproves of things being done informally because often women get left out of important (meetings). But you could also say that she’s a Prime Minister who has got rather a lot on her mind.”

However, she added: “I’m quite optimistic. I think we increasingly will see what a stupid waste it is sticking in our old ways.

“As more people of different backgrounds, start making a real contribution, they can start recruiting people.

“They can start, for example, recruiting the white, working class among whom unemployment rates are quite high.”

Ms Ashtiany is principal of Ashtiany Associates, a visiting professorial fellow at Queen Mary University of London and was formerly a partner and head of employment at Nabarro.

She was formerly a non-executive director of Channel 4, and a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Diversity Studies at Oxford Brookes University.

Earlier this month, a Government Minister acknowledged that there are “still far too many” cases of discrimination involving new mothers returning from maternity leave.

Claire Perry told MPs that she and fellow business minister Margot James would come down on employers who break the law like “a tonne of bricks”.

Saphieh Ashtiany said she was “very excited” about the prospects for Bradford.

Although she acknowledged that some communities were struggling, she was pleased to see Bradford university and Bradford college making a difference.

She added: “You see a sense of civic pride, you see new things happening like Centenary Square and the new build there. I’m really chuffed to be involved with Bradford.”

The graduation dinner, which was held in the atrium of the Richmond Building at Bradford University, also featured a speech from Professor Brian Cantor, the university’s vice chancellor.

The audience included business, civic and community leaders from across the region.