Television may have glamorised the image of the woman police detective - but how many of them had children who got sick, had to be taken to school or were screaming for their dinner?

The difficulty of combining police work with family responsibilities is one of the main reasons women are either leaving the force or failing to reach its higher ranks, says a Victoria University academic's report on the subject.

"The difficulty of working part-time is leading to a loss of trained staff who would stay in the police if it was easier to do so," says Associate Professor Prue Hyman in Women in the CIB.


She found many women in the CIB reluctant to take part-time positions because they were made to feel they were not pulling their weight.

Dayle Candy, New Zealand's only woman detective senior sergeant before she resigned in June, told Morning Report yesterday that family commitments were a factor in her departure, and that many police officers - male and female - avoided CIB work because of the pressure it put on their personal lives.

Contrast that with a woman who left the Ombudsman's office in 1994, rebuffed in her belief that part-time work was a right, not a privilege, after she returned to work from parental leave.

Because her position was an essential one, she was entitled under the Parental Leave and Employment Protection Act to return to a similar position only if one was available, and one was not.

But she did not want a fulltime job and accepted a part-time one, on a short-term contract.

By accepting a new job she put herself outside the reach of parental leave law.

But Chief Ombudsman Sir Brian Elwood - who inherited the case from his predecessor, Sir John Robertson - said she wanted to further reduce her hours so she could spend more time with her child, and she wanted to make her new part-time position a permanent one. He felt she was seeking a new position for which his office did not have the money. She was told no.

She left the job and laid a human rights complaint, alleging indirect discrimination.

Loosely interpreted, the section of the Human Rights Act dealing with the issue says that if a policy or condition disadvantages someone because, for example, he or she has children to care for, it could be indirect discrimination, unless the person imposing the condition "establishes good reason for it."

Indirect discrimination is becoming big business at the Human Rights Commission. It no longer sees complaints of simple gender discrimination - "I wasn't promoted because I'm a woman." Instead it gets complaints about the hours a woman is required to work when she has childcare or elderly parent responsibilities.

Auckland University associate law professor Paul Rishworth says the woman's claim would have been problematic.

But it cleared the Human Rights Commission hoops and landed on the desk of Proceedings Commissioner Chris Lawrence, who batted it on to the Complaints Review Tribunal, which can award damages or declare a human rights infringement.

At that point, after $33,000 worth of advice from the Solicitor-General, John McGrath, QC, the Ombudsman agreed to a $50,000 settlement.

Shivers went down spines at the Employers Federation.

If the advice is to settle in a case involving deep public pockets and the Solicitor-General, "what hope does the small employer have?" asks federation chief executive Anne Knowles.

It doesn't cost the employee a cent to lay a complaint with the Human Rights Commission and be awarded damages, but it costs the employer to appeal against the ruling through the courts.

The Solicitor-General was concerned that public litigation would embarrass the Ombudsman's office and the commission, and also saw "very real risks for the office in the outcome of the case."

Whatever was the commission thinking?

Sir Brian has no doubt: "The commission was seeking to establish that an employee on parental leave who did not wish to accept an equivalent fulltime position to the one from which leave had been taken was legally entitled to different, part-time employment on terms suitable to the employee without regard to the employer's operational requirements or budgetary constraints."

Confidentiality agreements mean its staff cannot discuss the case, but the commission now wants wide public debate on the issue of a caregiver's right to part-time work.

Mr Lawrence says that while the right to take parental leave is enshrined in law, the Human Rights Commission is concerned about what happens to women when they go back to work.

He says meeting the demands of work and family could become a human rights issue.

Barriers for mothers returning to work contribute to the income gap between men and women, he says, and increase the risk of women being excluded from a rapidly changing employment market.

"To what extent should employees be entitled to return to work on a part-time basis and to what extent should an employer be expected to accommodate it?" he asks.

That's the question Women's Affairs Minister and paid employment leave advocate Laila Harre thinks the commission should use its expertise to answer instead of leaving it to the public to sort out.

"It irritates me when the Human Rights Commission says this should be debated publicly but doesn't get in there and inform the debate."

Proposing that workers should be entitled to fit in their parenting responsibilities and the employer has to accommodate that is "an incredibly radical position to be advocating," Ms Harre says.

"It might be a worthy one, but we shouldn't pretend you can just throw it out for debate."

The minister would like to see more flexibility from employers.

She says the Government will address the issue indirectly by reviewing sick, bereavement and domestic leave provisions and by looking at hours of work.

Since labour force deregulation, hours of work have become more elastic, making it difficult for a woman to leave the office at 5 pm when the expectation is that everyone stays on until the job is done.

"I don't want to raise expectations that we will let workers choose their hours - no one is suggesting that," says Ms Harre.

"But there might be some requirement to consider the needs of working parents more carefully when you're setting hours of work and to show why it isn't possible to make it more flexible.

"There are situations in which parents, usually women, are not given the flexibility that could be accommodated without disrupting business or profits."

But is that a right which can be legislated? Not according to Anne Knowles at the Employers Federation, who says some businesses and some roles within organisations cannot operate with part-time hours.

It is an issue best left for employees to negotiate privately with their employers, she says.

The police, meanwhile, are promising to consult widely on Professor Hayman's recommendations, including the idea that working hours reflect the demands of after hours.