In Defense of Women of ‘Childbearing Age’

A lot of our time at Beloved involves intricate, hours-long work weaving tiny beads together, or organising our ridiculously abundant bead collection. That work requires vast amounts of visual attention, but since it has become so routine to us, our brains can get a little bored. Podcasts and audiobooks, therefore, often save the day. I have a number of favourites, but one particular podcast that has me clicking the ‘refresh’ button on the podcast app every day at lunch time is BBC Woman’s Hour. It is a fantastically wide-ranging programme, covering very serious issues as well as quite fun, frivolous ones, and everything in between.

Today I caught up on Friday’s episode, and I was a little disappointed. Not for the first time, the subject of discrimination against women of ‘childbearing age’ during job interviews in the UK was discussed, owing to new findings released by a YouGov study commissioned by the Young Women’s Trust.  I would recommend listening to it here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09gzjqm

My disappointment was in the comments read out after the piece. It seems to have become standard practise that the comments of a small business owner will be broadcast in response, in which said small business owner will talk of how difficult it is when staff need maternity leave, and how much their business suffers as a consequence. What angers me is that the voices of the small business owners who believe in maternity leave provision never seem to be heard.

Since Laurence and I opened Beloved nine years ago, at least twelve babies have been born to members of our staff team, meaning that at least half of our team have had maternity leave. All bar one of our team are of ‘childbearing age’. I simply cannot imagine employing anyone but the fine, intelligent, capable women who make Beloved. It is true, we are lucky that the work we do is compatible with children accompanying their parent to work. For our at-home staff the work set up is ideal, but even for our shop and management team we make provision for babies to accompany our team for at least the first year of their lives. Nevertheless, it is not without cost to us. Although in theory it is possible to collect three months of pay from the Unemployment Insurance Fund, in reality the system is horrid and disciminatory, so we offer three months of fully paid leave ourselves and flexible working after that. So when I hear employers complaining in the UK, employers who are reimbursed by the government for their maternity leave pay costs, you can imagine that it gets on my nerves.

My motivations for offering such a workplace are two-fold. The first is ideological. I’m a feminist, I believe in paid maternity and paternity leave. The second is purely selfish. The thing that no one mentions is that, as a general rule, members of staff who feel fully supported when pregnant and caring for small children are some of the most loyal employees you will ever have. Our staff turnover is very low. Yes we have to make sacrifices when key members of staff are away, but it is made up for by how little we have to invest in training. And the joy of visiting colleagues in hospital when their babies are just a few hours old (or in one case, assisting a delivery in the back of my car!) is beyond description.

My colleague's lovely baby, who spent many days of her first year in our shop. The toys we keep in our workshop to entertain our team's kids. Another colleague's daughter, born in my car six years ago, now a big fan of swings!

My colleague's lovely baby, who spent many days of her first year in our shop.
The toys we keep in our workshop to entertain our team's kids.
Another colleague's daughter, born in my car six years ago, now a big fan of swings!

I truly understood the value of such a policy when I was diagnosed with early breast cancer in 2014. I was devastated, and decided on major surgery. This meant that I needed four months of leave, and a slow return to work thereafter. I didn’t need to worry about my business, though, because it was in the safe hands of my amazing colleagues. Truly, the business was in better shape when I returned than it was when I left. My team offered me the same support that they had received when pregnant or caring for small children.

This is what we need to remember as small business owners. Yes, we carry a lot on our shoulders. Yes, making ends meet is really hard. But we, like our staff, are human beings. The more we treat our staff like they are deserving of consideration and support, the more likely we will receive the same. Ultimately our businesses will be better for it.