Returning to work from maternity leave in SMEs
Managing people is a crucial activity that most entrepreneurs engage in on an everyday basis. Yet, entrepreneurship research has paid surprisingly little attention to the subject of employment relations. Maternity leave, in particular, and woman’s return to work have been largely overlooked. While most countries grant rights to protect pregnant women, too many small employers still consider maternity leave an annoyance. Consequently, to fit in with the norms and ideals of masculine cultures, women are often forced to conceal pregnancy symptoms, and later disguise the demands of infant care as they juggle the responsibilities of motherhood and work. Julia Rouse, Jamie Atkinson, and Andrew Rowe explore this subject in their recent International Small Business Journal article, entitled “Peering inside mutual adjustment: Rhythmanalysis of return to work from maternity leave.”
As Rouse explained, “It all started with my co-author Jamie Atkinson, who’s a lawyer, and he was interested in the regulation change that happened in the UK … the right to request part time working, or flexible working. He was really interested in how regulation change affected maternity management. So we started from a practical and policy problem and then ended up in quite a strongly conceptual place … by borrowing this conceptual framework [of rhythmanalysis] as a way of making sense of what we were finding in the interviews.”
Rouse expressed that “there is a little off the cuff idea that regulation is always a barrier for small firms, but I don't buy into that. I think regulation can be an enabler or a constrainer, depending on the context and the way in which the manager behaves. And so, if you look at something like maternity, which is socially important but is experienced by an individual firm, probably as an inconvenience, then you’ve got a very important role for regulation. But equally, regulation has to arbitrate between interests. And so it's a really interesting place to think about regulation.”
Despite the importance of the subject, it was challenging to get the paper published. As Rouse admitted, “one of the reviewers hated it and wanted to reject it immediately arguing that it was far too esoteric and technical and not of interest to small businesses … Again it’s that dismissing of these kinds of issues as non-business issues” that she considered the problem. However, Rouse also acknowledged that they are “using a conceptual framework that does require a bit of thought to engage with … we are asking the reader of quite a lot of attention, which they, perhaps, weren't willing to give. So I suppose it’s always about trying to balance … how much you can ask of the reader and we were lucky in that we had a couple of reviewers [who] really liked it and also the editor was keen that we progressed with it, so we had very positive engagement with reviewers – they gave us some very genuinely helpful feedback!”
As a result of the review process, Rouse believes that “I think we've come up with a framework that is very useful. Although it needs translating now, because it's far too complex to go out there to practice, … I genuinely think that we can … walk into organizations and say, “We could review your maternity process in relation to this” … So we're eager to try the idea of maternity coaching: the idea that a coach comes in and works with the manager and the employee and possibly the team to kind of raise with them intelligence.” Hopefully, their efforts will help women and their employers to better adjust to the process of maternity leave.