Logo close icon

Researchers win grant to investigate the transition to parenthood in UK small and medium sized enterprises

Middlesex academic to lead on one study that is part of £3.9 million investment in seven new research projects to improve the world of employment for UK workers

Researchers from the Universities of Middlesex, Leeds and Manchester have been awarded a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), to examine how small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) manage their businesses and staffing when their employees become parents.

Evidence suggests SMEs lag behind in recognising the challenges parents face and implementing ‘family-friendly’ work options.

This three-year study, which is funded under the Transforming Working Lives programme of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) seeks to address this knowledge gap and develop recommendations for the management of maternity and paternity in SMEs which works for parents and employers.

The research will be lead by  Dr Bianca Stumbitz, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Entreprise and Economic Development Research at Middlesex University.

Dr Stumbitz, who is an international expert on maternity and paternity at work, said: “Becoming a parent is one of the most impactful processes in a person’s working life course yet most research on the experiences of pregnancy or parenthood and employment focuses on large firms and thereby excludes the experiences of the majority of employees and employers in the UK.

“While focusing on the UK, our project addresses a global problem: SMEs are globally under-researched although they employ the majority of (parental) workers worldwide.”

The project team brings together organisation studies, employment relations, social policy, sociology and economics, along with researchers in partnership with policymakers and/or practitioners.

"Most research on the experiences of pregnancy or parenthood and employment focuses on large firms and thereby excludes the experiences of the majority of (parental) workers worldwide." Dr Bianca Stumbitz, Middlesex University

Previous UK research on pregnancy and maternity related discrimination at work found small employers had the lowest awareness about the rights of pregnant employees and new parents, and were least likely to provide options for flexible working.

In the UK, SMEs account for 99.9% of the business population, three fifths of the employment and around half of turnover in the private sector.

The management of new parenthood in SMEs is different from large firms as they often lack a dedicated Human Resources department and have no written maternity/paternity policies.

The charities Working Families and The Fatherhood Institute, have been involved in developing the project and the Advisory Board includes 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 policy makers.

Simon Kelleher, Head of Policy and Influencing at Working Families and research team member, said:

“A majority of the UK’s parents work for SMEs so understanding and supporting their approach to parental leave policies is vitally important. While SMEs can often be great places to work for parents due to the positive working relationships and flexibility they can offer, a lack of HR resource can mean that the experiences of expectant and new parents aren’t always as good as they should be.”

Workplace support for fathers is seen as a key policy area for promoting gender equality in paid and unpaid work.

Dr Jeremy Davies, Head of Communications and Impact at the Fatherhood Institute and member of the research team, highlighted: “We are delighted to be part of this important study into support for parents in small and medium sized businesses: the backbone of the UK economy. Fathers are often an afterthought in employment policy - which is bad for dads and their families, bad for business, and bad for gender equality. We look forward to bringing a strong father-focus to this research.”

The Equality and Human Rights Commission, which will participate in the research as members of the advisory board, stated:

“The Equality and Human Rights Commission protects everyone in Britain from discrimination and inequality by enforcing the law. One of our priorities is to ensure fairness at work and this includes protecting new parents working for small and medium-sized businesses. We look forward to the findings of this research so that all employers know how to treat their staff fairly and comply with equality law.”

Professor Alison Park, Interim Executive Chair of the ESRC, emphasised the vital importance of this and the other six studies funded under the Transforming Working Lives programme:

Professor Park said: “The world of work is changing rapidly. Understanding how and why it is changing, and how this affects workers’ lives, will help policymakers, businesses and employees to navigate key challenges, including how to help people to progress in their careers and how to enhance gender equality in the workplace. These seven new research projects will collaborate and coordinate with one another, enhancing the collective impact of ESRC’s investment.”

Each of the projects will start on 1 October 2022 and will run for three years.

To find out about Business courses at Middlesex click here.

Related stories:

In this section

Back to top