Megan Walters’ crusade over maternity pay was highly commended at this week’s Building Awards. Here’s why

Megan Walters finally got an evening off on Tuesday to attend the Building Awards at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel. The PFI bid manager at contractor Lend Lease has been practically housebound for the past seven weeks looking after new arrival Penny, so a brief respite from nappy-changing and two-in-the-morning feeds was always going to be well-received. This was more than just an excuse for a night out, though. The 40-year-old mother of two walked away with the highly commended certificate for Outstanding Achievement of the Year.

Walters’ is an object lesson in employee action. She was nominated for the award for her part in the implementation of full pay for 26 weeks for women on maternity leave at Lend Lease. Before Walters became involved with the company’s employee action group Horizons, the contractor, in common with most construction companies paid the statutory minimum maternity allowance of £60 a week. She sums it up succinctly: “I jumped up and down and said ‘Why don’t we have maternity leave?’ The bottom line is, women have babies.”

In reality, of course, Walters took a far more measured approach. She collaborated with another colleague, Jessica Mellor-Clarke, to identify existing research on maternity policies in other companies. Using research published by bodies such as the DTI, Walters then wrote a cost benefit analysis. “I showed it was actually cheaper to pay women maternity leave, than to have them leave the company.” Which, she adds, is what many women choose to do. For example, DTI statistics published in 2001 revealed that bank HSBC improved its retention rate from 30% to 85% following the implementation of full pay for 26 weeks of maternity leave. “Often, they feel there’s no point going back to work, which obviously means companies have to recruit and train new staff. It was all economic arguments,” Walters says.

In May 2003 she sent the report to Lend Lease’s human resources directors, who with the support of the European board decided to implement the recommendations. John Davidson, Lend Lease’s human resources director, says: “Megan’s research supported our belief that the introduction of enhanced maternity and paternity conditions far outweigh the costs. We believe it will help improve our recruitment and retention rates in the long term.” In April 2004, the company introduced full pay maternity and paternity leave for 26 and four weeks respectively, beyond what Walters had anticipated. “In all the other industries I looked at, 26 weeks half pay is usual,” she says.

Unfortunately for Walters, the policy was implemented too late for her to enjoy full pay leave when she gave birth to her first daughter Rosie, now 21 months. However, six weeks after second daughter Penny was born, her efforts are paying off on a personal level, too.

Having enjoyed such success with her first attempt at direct employee action, Walters is anxious to do more to improve working conditions in the construction industry, particularly for women. “We go round encouraging women to join the construction industry, but you look at issues such as maternity leave, and you wonder why they would. Professions such as law, banking and retail are far more woman-friendly. Policies such as Lend Lease’s make the campaign to recruit that much stronger.”

She has already identified her next target.

“The one thing I want to look at now is equal pay for women,” she says, pointing out that this is not just an issue for construction, but for all professions.