Transition to Parenthood in UK SMEs


UK research on pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination at work found that small employers had the lowest awareness about the rights of pregnant and newly maternal employees, and that they were least likely to provide options for flexible working. In the UK, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) account for 99.9% of the business population, three-fifths of the employment and around half of turnover in the private sector. Whilst this research has highlighted the concerning extent of pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination in differently sized UK workplaces, the study neither included specific recommendations on how to improve maternity support in SMEs, nor the experiences of new fathers.

However, the management of new parenthood in SMEs is very different from large firms as SMEs are characterised by a number of key features, including resource scarcity and a preference for more informal approaches to staff management. They often do not have a dedicated Human Resources department and no written maternity/paternity policies. SME owners/managers are also often more resistant to maternity/paternity protection regulations than large firms, fearing the time and costs involved.

The project includes key stakeholders in the co-design of context-sensitive, low-cost and scalable solutions for effective management of new parenthood in SME workplaces through: 1) our practice-based co-investigators Working Families and the Fatherhood Institute; and 2) our Advisory Board – confirmed members include the International Labour Organization (ILO), Equality and Human Rights Commission, Maternity Action, ACAS, Federation of Small Businesses, Medical Women’s Federation, SME (owner-) managers, SME employees – including expectant/new mothers and fathers, and policymakers.

This project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), under the Transforming Working Lives programme. (ES/W01002X/1)

Research overview

We adopt a mixed methods design, combining quantitative and qualitative elements. Specifically, data collection will include the following elements:

1. Employing a longitudinal and participatory approach, qualitative data will be collected on experiences in relation to pregnancy, maternity/paternity/adoption/shared parental leave, flexible working, breastfeeding and childcare support, and accompanied by an awareness raising intervention co-designed by (owner-)-managers and employees. Semi-structured interviews will be conducted with (owner-)managers and employees in three phases over a one-year period. In addition, focus groups will be conducted with a) prospective/expecting parents; b) co-workers to explore perceptions and experiences related to new parenthood and work; c) parents who requested flexible working.

2. Two large-scale cross-sectional surveys of employees and employers working in SMEs to complement the qualitative data and more broadly explore attitudes, intentions, experiences and social norms around pregnancy, breastfeeding and childcare support, parental leave and flexible working for parents and the availability to and take-up by mothers and fathers to further inform academic and policy debates.

Key outputs will include a final report, data-sets emerging from the different methods, an awareness raising toolkit with a focus on SME specific low-cost solutions, a video designed to support positive employer-employee interactions, and a series of factsheets and related short video documentaries. Dissemination, user engagement and impact activities will include a stakeholder engagement event and a one-day academic conference, presentations at academic conferences and publications in peer-reviewed journals.

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