Maternity leave and other “family friendly” policies should be scrapped to increase gender equality in the workplace.

That is the controversial claim made by the head of a right-wing think tank this week in comments likely to reignite debate over one of the most divisive issues in modern employment practices.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Sheila Lawlor, director of Politeia, said paid maternity leave was creating a “great burden” for women and was preventing them from finding employment and advancing their careers.

She argued that taking time out to look after children means many mothers missed out on vital promotions and experience at work, while employers are dissuaded from hiring women because of the potential costs of paid maternity leave.

“Maternity leave is creating a great burden on many women and businesses. The legislation puts employers off employing women. Companies are reluctant to give jobs to women of childbearing age,” she said.

“We have to abandon what is wrongly called ‘family -friendly’ legislation, including the sole option maternity leave.

“Most ordinary women in most ordinary jobs do badly when they take advantage of family-friendly legislation. It takes longer for them to catch up on earnings when they return and they don’t accrue pension rights while they are away.”

Her comments are likely to cause consternation among women’s rights campaigners, many of whom see tackling prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory practices as the main barrier to be overcome in establishing greater gender equality in the workplace, rather than a reduction in employment rights.

In an interview with the Guardian last year, Rosalind Bragg, director of the advice and campaigning group Maternity Action claimed there is still “widespread acceptance of pregnancy discrimination amongst employers”.

She added: “Very few women take any action over pregnancy discrimination so most employers will get away with it.”