There are a lot of surveys about women and work. Not a day goes past without another or several more coming my way. Many of them are commissioned by private firms as a way of marketing themselves – sometimes with the best of intentions – because they know the issue is in the news.
But one caught my eye last week. It was from the Friend Partnership, an organisation of accountants, business advisers and corporate finance and tax specialists. They surveyed women business owners, the self-employed, senior executives, middle management employees and retirees about their views on women in business. There were interesting findings. Although at least 83 percent of women in each age bracket agree that businesses must offer flexible working conditions to attract high-performing females, 73 percent of business owners believe it is difficult to work part time in a senior role. Part time is not defined.
The survey also focuses on SMEs. It says paid leave for new parents is a financial and operational challenge for 90 percent of UK SMEs, with 96 percent of board level executives saying it’s a significant challenge for their business. The research also claims that the current generation of business owners are at least three times more likely than self-employed, employed or retired women to say maternity leave is too long and 90 percent of business owners say more government support is needed to help smaller businesses with the financial burden of maternity/paternity/parental leave provision so that they can compete with the kind of packages offered by the bigger employers.
It is true that paid maternity leave, for instance, is longer than average in the UK, but most of it is poorly paid – as dads considering Shared Parental Leave are finding.
Denise Friend, founder of Friend Partnership, has urged government to consider supporting the SME sector in a way that provides enhanced parental leave packages by way of tax credits or reduced rates of corporation tax.
Do we need to have a full review of parental leave in the UK to figure out what might work better for the future rather than bolting on additional policies?
Smaller SMEs have traditionally been able to compete with the bigger corporates’ benefits packages by being more flexible and more local. But for middle-sized SMEs flexibility can be more of a challenge. They are often too big to operate on an individual basis, adapting to individual employees’ needs, and need to adopt a range of policies to ensure consistency. Yet they are too small to have the HR resources and funding to offer the range of options and benefits that larger employers can offer.
There are some great examples of employers who have overcome these challenges. However, it is clear SMEs face specific challenges and require greater support to tackle those and to be able to offer the kind of work that modern families need.
Take flexible working. The trouble with surveys is that they only ask very specific questions and flexible working comes in many, many forms, as does ‘part time’ working. Part-time working can mean many things from just a few hours a week to virtually full time. Many ‘part-time’ senior workers I have spoken to recently have been doing four-day weeks. Several businesses are moving to four-day weeks on full pay in recognition that the working week has become more intensive and full time is so intensive that it means there is no time for anything else.
Then there are job shares, too often dismissed because they are little understood and there is little support, particularly for SMEs, who might face challenges implementing them.
We need to understand the specific challenges SMEs face and look at how we can negotiate these and share best practice so that more employers can offer flexible working at all levels as well as the kind of family support that will increasingly be necessary for all workers.