EHRC deputy chair Caroline Waters says the majority of smaller firms are supportive of pregnant employees despite popular misconceptions, but more needs to be done to improve their knowledge of legal rights in the area.
If you listen to the standard tales about what small businesses think about pregnant women, you’d be forgiven for believing these firms are anti-women, anti-mother or even anti-family.
In reality, our new research suggests that most really don’t deserve this reputation. Instead it shows they are supportive of their pregnant and returning employees, recognising the value they bring to businesses and the economy.
Government statistics suggests that by addressing issues such as the gender pay gap to allow women’s productivity and employment to equal that of men, we could increase the economy by around £600bn, which is enough money to clear a third of the national debt.
The new research published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in conjunction with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills highlighted that:
• 83 per cent of small businesses think that supporting pregnant women and those on maternity leave is in the interests of the organisation, with the most common reason for this view being the retention of skilled staff
• Eight in ten of all employers believe that pregnant women are as committed to work as other members of the team
Small firms were also found to be more supportive of mothers’ requests for flexible working and more likely to contact employees on maternity leave for social and welfare reasons, reflecting that many care about their employees.
So why do smaller businesses continue to have a reputation for being unsupportive of women of childbearing age in their workplace?
Well, there certainly is work to be done in improving the practices in SMEs, particularly in improving their knowledge of legal rights and making applying these rights feel easier and less complex. Our research found that employers in large businesses were more likely to have high awareness of the statutory rights than smaller ones. Similarly, small businesses found it harder to facilitate the rights of pregnant women and women on maternity leave.
Employers usually want to do the right thing, for their people and their business, but we’re aware that complying with legal obligations can feel daunting and difficult, particularly when you have limited access to HR support.
This is why we have created our online toolkit for employers – that SMEs helped us to create – particularly with smaller firms in mind. The toolkit includes a bank of pre-prepared letters, checklists and a date planner which will populate your calendar with all the relevant dates making the whole process simpler and more effective.
There’s also guidance to help employers feel more confident about how to contact women on maternity leave. Our data shows employers fear it puts women under pressure, whereas a quarter of mothers asked in our survey actually wanted more contact.
It’s also not commonly known that small businesses can claim up to 103 per cent of statutory maternity pay back. Find out more here.
Being able to talk openly, knowledgeably and early about what is needed is vital to ensure a working environment that supports all your employees.
The happier and more supported people feel, the better they work and the better businesses perform. It is in everyone’s interests to support pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace, not just so that these talented and highly regarded women can continue to contribute to your businesses, but also to ensure this issue isn’t holding back the potential of Britain’s economy.
Caroline Waters is the deputy chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
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