Automatically excluding female employees on maternity leave from training programmes is discriminatory, the European Court of Justice has ruled.
The court found that the automatic exclusion of a female worker from a training course because she has taken compulsory maternity leave constituted unfavourable treatment contrary to EU law.
It noted that in such a case, the female worker might not be able to benefit in the same way as her colleagues from an improvement in working conditions.
The case of Loredana Napoli v Ministero della Giustizia - Dipartimento dell'Amministrazione penitenziaria originated in Italy.
In 2009, Ms Napoli was successfully appointed as deputy commissioner in the (Amministrazione penitenziaria) prison service and she was admitted on 5 December 2011 to a training course scheduled to start on 28 December 2011.
As Ms Napoli gave birth on 7 December 2011 she was placed, in accordance with the national legislation, on compulsory maternity leave for three months until 7 March 2012.
She was told she would be excluded from the course once the first 30 days of the maternity leave had elapsed and that payment of her salary would be suspended. However the Italian authorities agreed that she would be admitted to the next course organised.
The Court pointed out that, although the maternity leave did not affected Ms Napoli's status and that she returned to the job to which she was assigned before her leave, being excluded from the vocational training course as a result of having taken maternity leave had a negative effect on Ms Napoli's working conditions.
It found her colleagues were able to attend the first course in its entirety and to be promoted before her to the higher grade of deputy commissioner while receiving the corresponding pay.
The Court suggested that affected organisations could provide equivalent parallel remedial courses enabling a returning mother to be admitted within the prescribed period to the examination and thereby to be promoted, without delay, to a higher grade.
"In this way, the career development of such a female worker would not be hindered in relation to that of a male colleague who was successful in the competition and admitted to the initial training course," it added.