Radio 4’s Today programme recently offered us the thought that our problem with the UK ’s workforce is that too many employment laws are driven by high-falutin’ ideology rather than evidence they achieve what we want. I don’t care what each new bit of legislation says, or why it was dreamed up, as long as it actually delivers what we want it to.
At the moment, some of our HR laws don’t. Take maternity rights as an example. I’m a liberal, so I believe that (a) the best candidate should get the job and (b) for most jobs, sex is irrelevant. That’s better for business, better for women and better for society in general. So I agree with the Government that our laws should put women and men on an equal footing. Maybe maternity rights that give mothers a significant period of leave, some of it paid, and then give them the right to their job back, are achieving that. If, as the Government proposes, increasing the mums’ period of paid leave will achieve more equality, three cheers - go for it! But are these new policies really achieving that?
I hear stories that employers sometimes reject a female applicant for a job, or fail to promote a woman when, on merit, she is the best person for the job. Bosses keep the reasons under wraps but actually it’s because she is young, in a relationship, and may go off and have babies. I hear that, if we look at how women fare in the UK workplace compared to some other countries, many other places are more meritocratic than we are. I also hear that in some of those countries women have fewer maternity rights. Does that mean that the fewer rights women have, the more likely they are to be treated better when it comes to recruitment and promotion? Or would we find that those countries are actually more meritocratic because social norms are different there, their country’s richer than ours, or because the demographics in that country mean women are bound to do better in the workplace?I, for one, don’t know.
My big worry is that our politicians don’t know either. My even bigger worry is that - policy evaluations notwithstanding - they don’t seem to want to find out. Instead, they seem hung up on the belief that to make people more equal, you just keep giving some of them more rights. Faced with possible evidence that this may be counter-productive - that, say, giving women more rights may not actually benefit them, or their employers - they don’t stop and reflect enough. They just plough on – and maybe move the goalposts so it doesn’t look so obvious that it isn’t working. Maternity rights seem a ripe candidate for a proper, rigorous evidence-based approach. Ideas anyone?