A woman's right to choose? ‘HOW could I risk all our hard work by employing someone who could drop the maternity bombshell at any time? I will not take on anyone of child-bearing age." In today’s politically correct world, these are dangerous and inflammatory words which fly in the face of the equal rights that women have fought hard to win over more than a century. But the statement did not come from the mouth of a chauvinistic middle-aged male company executive; it was made by 43-year-old businesswoman Sylvia Tidy-Harris. Tidy-Harris is one of a growing number of people who are expressing doubts that women can continue to be expected to "do it all", juggling the demands of work with their own desire to spend as much time as possible with their children. The debate is posing serious questions for all of society about when mothers should return to work, the maternity benefit they should receive and the ability of businesses to cope with these rights. The arguments were stoked further last week when airline pilot Jessica Starmer, 26, from Wareham, Dorset, won a key legal victory in a sex discrimination case against British Airways. Struggling to balance home and work, she had asked to cut her working hours in half so she could look after her one-year-old daughter Beth. BA refused, claiming strict safety rules for pilots meant Starmer would be unable to meet flight time requirements. But on Friday an employment tribunal ruled in favour of her indirect sexual discrimination claim. Starmer said: "All I wanted was to make sure my daughter was cared for properly, while continuing in a career into which both my employer and I have invested lots of time and money." Thousands of women across Britain will have sympathised, and the case has set a legal precedent, which effectively allows women to demand - rather than request - part-time work. But, controversially, Tidy-Harris argues that women should not be trying to divide their time between their home life and work in this way. Moreover, she refuses to employ any women under the age of 45 at her agency for after-dinner speakers WomenSpeakers, in Leicestershire. Tidy-Harris claims that when younger women take maternity leave it causes disruption and costs small businesses money they simply cannot afford. She said: "After the lengths women had to go to in order to get the vote and equal rights, it is extraordinary many are now looking to undo that by trying to share work with family. "I’m not anti-children, I have two step-children myself, but I wish more parents would stay at home. Any person will put their child before their job, but when you are running a business you just cannot afford to do that. "We have no allocation to sort ourselves out if a member of staff takes maternity leave so we don’t want to risk it. Most small businesses do not have the time to train someone else up to fill the job. For me to employ someone from an agency costs £1,280 a week while the government only offers businesses £180 to cover these costs. "And after eight or nine months off work, the mother might decide not to come back at all." Many small business owners do feel vulnerable on the issue, following legislation to give pregnant women more rights and guarantee 26 weeks of maternity leave. But, with nearly 39% of the workforce in Scotland being female, small businesses risk losing vital skills if they follow Tidy-Harris’s example and refuse to employ some women. Elaine Reilly, 40, from Glasgow, combines running her business consultancy firm, Oryx Solutions, with caring for her two children. She set up the company three years ago and now employs 11 members of staff, eight of whom are women. She said: "I can understand why people might not want to employ women in case they fall pregnant as there is a lot of pressure on small businesses. Everyone needs to pull their weight and it can be a struggle if someone takes time off. For a small business time is cash. "But that is a very short-term attitude to take. People are inevitably going to fall ill and go on holiday, so it is really about being flexible to adapt to real life." But Reilly admits the pressures of combining both work with family life are forcing a lot of women to make a choice. She said: "When my first was born nine years ago, I was lucky as my husband works from home and was able to share the child care responsibilities. "To actually walk out the door to go to work in the morning is very hard, but after a while you get used to it." In fact, in the last 10 years the number of mothers going out to work has soared from 52% to 62%. The figure is expected to rise in Scotland by another 27,000 by 2006. This trend reflects a dramatic shift in the social make-up of the country. A few decades ago, most families could survive on the wage brought in by a single working parent; today, with cost-of-living rises and huge increases in lifestyle aspirations, few can afford to do so. Equality of rights has also seen women taking jobs that were traditionally dominated by men, broadening the roles they play in the workplace and making them more central to the running of companies. In the last five years, the number of major firms with females taking key positions on the board of directors has risen by nearly two- thirds. Barbara Graham, director of the careers unit at Caledonian University, said: "Women are waiting a lot longer now before they have children, so it means they can pursue a career before having a family. But staff of both sexes are generally looking for an increasing amount of flexibility at work so they can enjoy their lives around it. "Providing this can have great rewards for an employer as it can make staff very loyal and more prepared to go that extra mile." The rights of pregnant women and mothers to work in the UK have undergone dramatic changes in the last 10 years alone. Mothers can now enjoy statutory maternity pay, and discrimination laws make it illegal to sack a women if she falls pregnant. The ongoing election campaign has produced a rash of promises on the subject from all political parties. The Lib Dems have promised to increase maternity pay, while both the Tories and Labour have pledged to extend maternity leave from six to nine months. But is this what women want? A recent survey commissioned by New Woman magazine suggested young women are increasingly placing their children before their careers. Only one in 10 of the 1,500 women questioned said they wanted to work full-time after they had a child. And almost a quarter said they were aiming to be at home with their children full-time. Just 1% regarded their career as their top priority, while two-thirds also felt a man should be the main provider for his family. Marie Dorris, business development manger at Scottish Enterprise and an organiser of the Scottish Business Women forum, said: "There are a lot of complexities in trying to manage both work and family. It often depends on individual circumstances, so it is impossible to generalise. But with over a third of the country’s workforce being women, it would be extremely damaging indeed if they were all to suddenly give up." The survey figures reflect the guilt that women feel that their children suffer if they go out to work, says Jonathan Swan, policy manager at parenting campaign group Working Families. He said: "Working life is increasingly imposing on family life and squeezing it out. Atypical hours are becoming more and more common and these can play havoc as it means parents find it increasingly difficult to spend time with their children, even at weekends." Some companies are looking for solutions to the problems facing parents who want to combine working with their home life. Ann Rushforth, 44, from Bearsden, Glasgow, who runs nursing agency ScotNursing, has been at the forefront of firms helping to get women back to work after they have had a child. Her company, which has more than 23 branches throughout Scotland, has more than 17,000 qualified nurses on its books. With nearly 90% of her staff being women, she provides a nursery service for their children while they are at work. She said: "It doesn’t make sense to cut out any part of the workforce from employment as each brings valuable knowledge and skills with them. Refusing to employ women of child-bearing age means you are losing people aged between 16 and 50 years old. "Maternity leave is rarely unplanned like sickness. In fact, more people take time off work due to sporting injuries than for maternity leave. When I employ someone, I want the right person for the job whether they are a man or a woman." Despite the innovations of individual companies, the general feeling is that the issue of maternity rights will one day have to be tackled face-on at a national level. As this week’s victory for Jessica Starmer made clear, policies are still evolving, with the courts, at least, taking the view that women should have the right to even more flexibility. Meanwhile, business leaders warn that they cannot afford to do much more to offer such choice - although few men will follow Tidy-Harris’s example and risk being quite so explicit about it. MOTHERHOOD JUST THE JOB - FOR SOME SHORTLY after announcing her pregnancy last year, Hollywood star Julia Roberts said she would be taking a career break of at least five years. Her trainer announced: "She wants to devote all her time to her babies." Two months after giving birth to twins she signed on for two films. • Pop star Madonna, below left, didn’t really slow down until after she had her second child, with British husband Guy Ritchie, but she did change her image. She began to wear demure country tweeds and wrote a children’s book. Although she remains a global superstar, motherhood and family now seem more important than racking up album sales or world tours. • Gwyneth Paltrow was one of the highest paid actresses in the US, earning £5.6m a film. But the 32-year-old said she would not worry if she never worked again after giving birth to baby Apple last May. Naturally, she’s now back in the studio. • Eighties actress Ellen Barkin, about to re-enter the world of the big screen in the movie Palindrome, took a step back from starring roles to raise her children Jack, now 16, and Romey, 12. She is now also stepmum to the six her husband, cosmetics mogul Ron Perelman, has from three previous marriages. • The attempts of Victoria Beckham, former Spice Girl and wife of David, to remain a pop star while embracing motherhood were doomed to failure. She now stays at home.