On Saturday, Janet Yellen becomes the first woman to head the U.S. Federal Reserve, an honor which has brought her top billing in a British poll of the world’s ten most powerful female financiers. Eight of the women – including Yellen – combined their glittering careers with a family and children.
This may come as a revelation to Nigel Farage, head of the fast-growing U.K. Independence Party. Farage has just caused a storm of protest with some outspoken comments in London’s financial centre – the City as it’s known – on the subject of maternity and work. To quote:
"If a woman broker who has a client base, has a child and takes two or three years off work, she is worth far less to her employer when she comes back than when she went away," said Farage, claiming that said woman's clients will have drifted off, and her contacts will have dwindled.
"This helps explain why female finance workers in Britain earn on average 30% less than men," he said.
Should Nigel Farage know what he’s talking about? He spent more than 20 years working as a commodities broker before he became involved in politics.
"He’s talking absolute rubbish!" declares Louise Cooper – a former stockbroker and a mother of two. "You don’t get two or three years off to have a baby. The maximum amount of time you get off is 12 months. And many women choose to take four, five, or six months. That is usually much less than gardening leave," says Cooper.
"Gardening leave" is the time that city workers – having quit their jobs – must stay away from work before they are allowed to join a rival company. In London, it usually lasts six months to a year.
Cooper asks: "Why is six months or so of maternity leave more damaging to a company than twelve months of gardening leave?"
Kirstie Ayre – an employment expert with the Pinsent Masons law firm - said the notion that women are "somehow intrinsically worth less to financial institutions because they might leave to have a family is laughable."
"These days when an employee leaves, the company does not automatically lose clients. Those contacts are usually shared between teams of employees," she said.
Others complained that Nigel Farage’s comments were harmful to working mothers.
"We found his remarks very disappointing. This will make life so much more difficult for the many women who are doing a very impressive job of balancing their work and family responsibilities," said Rosalind Bragg, director of the charity Maternity Action.
Bragg is afraid that Farage’s comments will fuel further prejudice against working women, already a major problem.
"Since the economic downturn began, the rates of pregnancy discrimination in the U.K. have grown dramatically, and that’s true of the finance sector as much as it is of the wider labor market. In 2006, 30,000 women lost their jobs as a result of pregnancy discrimination, and now the figure’s risen to about 60,000 a year. That’s roughly 1 in 7 pregnant women in the workforce," she said.