Despite women’s advancements in education and workforce participation, they remain disadvantaged in the labour market. The reasons for this are complex. An important factor is maternity-related disadvantage at work – the so-called ‘motherhood penalty’. Around the world, inequalities in terms of earnings and occupational progression persist for women because of giving birth (and doing most of the caring thereafter).
As early as 1919, the International Labour Organization (ILO) recognised maternity protection at work as an essential element in achieving equality of opportunity. It has played a key role in setting international standards on maternity protection in the workplace, including with respect to maternity leave around childbirth; health protection at work for pregnant and nursing women; cash and medical benefits during maternity leave; employment protection and non-discrimination; breastfeeding support; and childcare arrangements after the return to work. Maternity protection legislation and related policies in line with ILO standards have been introduced in many countries but are implemented and enforced at organisational level to various extents.
Small firms often assume that they cannot afford maternity support and perceive staff maternity as an unnecessary and burdensome disruption, as confirmed in a recent report by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Given the resource constraints that many small firms are facing, small business owners and managers are often resistant to maternity protection regulations, fearing that the time and costs involved will lead to competitive disadvantage. However, mine and my colleagues’ international review of maternity support in SMEs found that small employers’ resistance to maternity support is mostly based on assumptions rather than actual negative experience. This finding is also supported by the BIS report. Although small employers were more likely to view the statutory requirements of maternity support as unreasonable, employers with recent experience (in the past three years) of staff pregnancy generally had a more positive attitude than those without recent experience.
The widespread perception that supporting workers with family responsibilities is costly for business is further reinforced in news and public debates, such as the discussions around Apple and Facebook’s offers to cover the costs of their female employees having their eggs frozen. In the UK, small businesses account for 99.3 per cent of all private sector businesses and 99.9 per cent are small or medium-sized (SMEs). Total employment in SMEs constitutes 60 per cent of all private sector employment in the UK. Shouldn’t the focus therefore be on the ways in which small employers can support pregnant staff and workers with family responsibilities rather than debating highly costly measures that only very large firms can afford? Smaller businesses have scope to be creative within available resources to support pregnant women and new mothers. They do not need to follow the examples of initiatives provided by larger organisations, such as the ‘egg freezing offer’, which may send a misleading picture to employers of what female employees really need anyway.
Breastfeeding support usually involves little or no cost
Our review revealed that, although maternity-related leave may entail costs for SMEs, actual costs can be less than anticipated. The reviewed literature suggests that there are many measures that are particularly suited to the often more informal approach to maternity management in small firms. For instance, breastfeeding support usually involves little or no cost. The same applies to some forms of low-cost child-care support, such as dedicating specific office space to where children can sleep, play or do their homework, or encouraging working from home. The review demonstrates that these measures can lead to a range of positive outcomes for mothers and employers, including enhanced employee satisfaction, commitment, recruitment and retention, which are associated with improvements in performance and productivity, particularly when policies are supported by a family-friendly workplace culture. There is no evidence from these studies that this type of support harms small firms.
Not convinced? Let’s look at the case of Ghana.
Most recently, my colleagues and I explored maternity support at the workplace in Ghana, with a particular focus on small firms and the informal economy. Ghana has national legislation providing 12 weeks’ paid maternity leave, which are supposed to be paid fully by the employer at 100 per cent of previous earnings. In contrast to the UK (where the bulk of maternity leave costs is covered by public funds), employers in Ghana continue to carry the full burden of maternity cash benefits – providing devastating conditions for small firms.
Not surprisingly, we found that smaller firms were often struggling to provide legal aspects of maternity protection, such as paid maternity leave, whereas formal employers of more than 20 employees were most likely to offer statutory provisions in the form of paid time off for antenatal visits, maternity leave and paid breastfeeding breaks upon return to work.
With respect to paid maternity leave, small employers provided support in line with what they could afford – some managed to only pay two months instead of three, or three months at half pay; others could not afford any paid leave at all. At the same time, however, we also found that small firm employers were much better at providing low-cost family-friendly measures, such as informal childcare support and opportunities for breastfeeding at work – types of support which were rarely available in large firms. Instead, large businesses tended to be characterised by a more individualistic work culture, limited mutual support among colleagues and maternity support practices that were too detached from employees’ everyday needs.
As a result, small firm employees across sectors often showed their appreciation of family-friendly support (particularly flexible working hours, the ability to bring children to work and take breaks for breastfeeding) by being more motivated and loyal to the business (even if they had not received any paid maternity leave), whereas employees of larger firms (who had sometimes even received more than the statutory three months of paid leave) were frustrated by the lack of family-oriented support and complained about stress lowering their productivity.
“I am not happy with [this lack of support] and yes that has influenced my approach to work in that I work strictly to the rule and do not allow anybody to take my extra time off … When my employers are not willing to go the extra mile for me, why should I go another mile for them?” – Employee of multi-lateral organisation in Accra (formal, 100-plus staff)
“Working with a new baby is difficult because you can’t concentrate, especially when you leave the baby at home, every now and again you are sneaking into the urinal to make a call and ask if the baby has eaten, if the baby is OK, if the baby is sleeping and all that. Such things sometimes make you as mother unproductive at work because your mind is totally divided.” – Private sector employee in Accra (formal, 100-plus staff)
In small firms in the informal economy, any maternity support was strongly influenced by the nature of the relationship to the line manager as well as support from colleagues. Trust was thus experienced by employers as a crucial building block to recognising that there are two-way benefits to such relationships. As a female business owner (informal, ten staff) argued: “Family-oriented support builds a good relationship between the employer and the employee and this builds trust because the worker feels cared for by the employer. Lastly it reduces the labour turnover rate which can be very costly.”
Our research in Ghana demonstrates that there is much to be learned by employers in the UK with respect to offering additional support in ways that do not harm employers and that can potentially even have positive outcomes for business.
Effective maternity support measures can make it easier for employees to combine work and family responsibilities. Many of these involve little or no costs, as demonstrated by the fact that the most effective ones are often the only support provided by those small employers who cannot afford to offer paid maternity leave. On the contrary, a considerable indirect cost can be created by the dissatisfaction of employees with the lack of family-oriented support received after return from maternity leave. We also saw the importance of supportive workplace culture and practices – dialogue between pregnant employees and their employers encouraging mutual give and take and realistic expectations.
There is an urgent need to change organisational cultures
However, in such cases employer support depended on whether the employee had proven her abilities before becoming pregnant. According to employers, it was not worth investing in staff who had not proven their abilities, trustworthiness and loyalty. Our research therefore also showed how examples of supportive practices sit alongside examples of severe discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers.
Equality is not about enabling women to work like men (long hours etc.) but to work in different but equally valuable ways and be valued for this. As women are not the same as men (especially as they have babies), they should be treated equitably (i.e. fairly) not equally (i.e. the same). At the moment, women of childbearing age tend to be regarded as potential mothers and therefore treated with suspicion. New mothers are often perceived as troublesome workers who request workplace arrangements to be fitted around the requirements of family life rather than vice versa. In the ‘egg freezing’ example, women are even “encouraged to fit their biology around workplace requirements”. Is this the right track to achieve gender equality? Shouldn’t the workplace change and find effective ways to manage maternity instead? Our research shows that it can be done and also suggests how.
Maternity protection is not only about women. Fatherhood currently has a positive impact on men’s career prospects. This is however based on the condition that they do not request too much time off work. Although fathers are increasingly involved in childcare, research shows that they tend to be involved in the ‘fun bits’, like giving the baby a bath in the evening or taking the kids to football, while women remain in charge of the less flexible tasks, such as doing the school run. As a result, women are required to request more flexibility in the workplace, while men’s work commitments remain mostly unaffected.
There is an urgent need to change organisational cultures with respect to the predominant ‘male ideal’ model of work. This includes improving workplace support for fathers who want to become more involved in childcare. We can only achieve equitability if we create workplace cultures in which it is equally likely for a father to take a day off to look after a sick child as a mother.
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