EQUALITY LAW 'NIGHTMARE'; Top Businesswoman Warns Excessive Maternity Leave and Huge Sex Discrimination Payouts Risk Backfiring on Women

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Byline: Kirsty Walker Political Correspondent

LABOUR'S equal rights laws risk harming the prospects of women in the workplace, one of Britain's top businesswomen said last night.

Nichola Pease, deputy chairman of JO Hambro capital management and a mother of three, said excessive maternity leave and eye-watering sex discrimination payouts could backfire on women.

She denied allegations of sexism in the City, claiming most women did not rise through the ranks because of their own choices rather than any prejudice against them.

And she suggested bosses were reluctant to employ women for fear they could go on to have lots of children supported by Britain's over-generous maternity leave system.

'We have got to be realistic and make sure the protection around women does not end up backfiring,' she told a parliamentary hearing into sexism in the financial sector. 'That is actually one of my greatest worries.' Mrs Pease, 48, said women were 'a really capable, practical and driven bunch of multi-taskers'.

But their contribution to the workforce risked being overshadowed by a nightmare of 'legislation and protection'.

'I think we have got too long maternity leave,' she told MPs. 'A year is too long and sex discrimination cases that run into the tens of millions are ridiculous.' Women in Britain currently have the right to 52 weeks maternity leave .

But Mrs Pease, who with hedge fund manager husband Crispin Odey is said to be worth [pounds sterling]204million, pointed out the U.S. has only 12 weeks maternity leave, while some Far Eastern countries do not have any.

She told MPs that many women did not reach senior levels because they did not want the 'extra responsibility'.

And many senior bosses did not have 'confidence' in employing women for fear they would go on to have families at the company's expense.

She added: 'How easy is it if they have three children and take five years out?

'I think there is already positive discrimination for women. Call it feminism, but there are a lot of calls for women saying "come on board".

'I think a lot of women that could be on board make choices not to go further up an organisation and they made those choices for a variety of very understandable and acceptable reasons.

'It might be that they have decided to concentrate on their family.

'It may be that they decide they want more flexible working practices and the senior jobs may not be suitable for them.

'It might be that they decide they don't want the responsibility or the extra hours that often pinpointed Britain's financial institutions as go with very, very senior jobs. …