By Claire West

According to the Observer A fifth of British directors refuse to hire women of child-bearing age, a new report has found, provoking a furious response from the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC).

Nearly 1,000 UK directors across a range of firms were polled last month. The results show that 22 per cent of male directors avoid hiring potential mothers, the worst culprits being older directors. Some 29 per cent of directors over 55 block the hiring of younger women.

This report comes just days after the EOC announced its support for working mother Katharina Tofeji, in her fight to overturn a tribunal’s sex discrimination judgment in favour of investment bank BNP Paribas. The EOC will be funding the appeal to clarify the legal rights of women upon return from maternity leave.

Ms Tofeji had worked for the bank for over five years, as a senior sales dealer. A high flyer, who had been considered very successful prior to taking maternity leave, Ms Tofeji experienced far-ranging problems upon her return to work.

Ms Tofeji argues that following her maternity leave she was placed in a vulnerable position and at a considerable disadvantage as a result of her absence. For example on the day of her return, Ms Tofeji discovered that there were no immediate plans to return the clients she had successfully built up during her time at the bank. Instead she was told to justify the return of any of her clients.

The appeal will argue that the employment tribunal decision wrongly compared Ms Tofeji’s treatment with how she would have been treated had she been a man, with a similar length of absence. Pregnant women are in a unique position, so it is not the correct approach simply to compare the situation to someone who has not been pregnant. Women on maternity leave are covered by what is known in legal terms as a ‘protected period’, which ensures their position at work is not disadvantaged as a result of taking maternity leave.

With as many as 30,000 women a year losing their jobs because of their pregnancy or maternity leave, Ms Tofeji’s experiences highlight the urgent need for employers to understand the rights and responsibilities of pregnant women and to plan a woman’s return to work jointly with her.

The poll was commissioned by YouGov last month, with a sample of 918 company directors.

Pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace can be easily avoided through good information on rights and responsibilities, effective planning and by opening up a dialogue early on. The EOC has recently launched an online toolkit to guide employers through managing pregnancy and new parents well, to the benefit of individuals and employers alike — visit the EOC’s pregnancy toolkit.

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