The pregnancy trap: female business owners face uphill battle

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We’ve received an array of responses from the business community since publishing our article on startups and motherhood.

Admittedly, the article had a narrow focus on the employer-employee relationship but not business owners themselves. One of the responses was from a business owner and a mother. Women in business, she said, have the odds stacked against them. Maternity legislation for business owners simply isn't realistic.

And worse, they technically force many mums into breaking the law (and risking their maternity benefit). This is what happened to this business owner and it’s why she’s posting anonymously. If you have anything you’d like to add please leave a comment or email me at [email protected]

I organised the rendezvous with my colleague in a busy coffee shop, well away from the beaten track so as not to be spotted or overheard.

Was this meeting of business owners an under-the-table deal or, perhaps, industrial espionage? No, actually. This was how I found out how self-employed mums deal with maternity leave.

Because no one ever talks about it.

I knew the basics of self-employed maternity entitlements: you get 10 keeping in touch days over ten months if you take the full allocation of maternity allowance. The pay is about £500 a month if you paid all your National Insurance contributions.

But as a small business owner, it’s blooming difficult to take 10 months and return to the same business you left pre-baby. It just doesn’t happen.  So we have the theory of what you should do, and the practicality of what actually happens.

What employees get

Employees get protected by law in returning to the same job and the same salary they left before maternity leave. They get paid time off for any antenatal appointments or classes. They choose whether they want to work 10 keeping in touch days. They can even go start their own business in the time off without any sort of penalty for doing work on the side.

I know one mum who gave birth at home at 11 pm and then was doing payroll at her desk with the baby in a crib beside her at 10 am the next morning.

The self-employed get none of these perks, and usually, our business has already taken a hit before we even have the baby due to reduced working hours and time off for pregnancy sickness or antenatal appointments.

What the self-employed get

The underpinning is the £500 a month maternity allowance. If we do any work other than those ten days, technically our money stops. Now I know from speaking to other mums that I’m not the only one who found this unfair and slightly fudged that ten keeping in touch days.

According to the rules:

  • If you answer the phone or an email, that counts as a whole day of work
  • You are not allowed to do any other work during your time off
  • Going over the ten keeping in touch days may stop your maternity allowance altogether

My colleague’s advice was to “Claim you work one day a month for the full ten months and that you’ve squeezed all your admin queries, business development and bill paying into that 24 hour period. If anyone questions you answering an email or phone call you just say that was your working day that month”.

So that’s what I did. I had very competent cover, but a lot of the things small business owners do are solely down to them to make decisions on. And those are the things which keep us in business!

My story is not uncommon: I know one mum who gave birth at home at 11 pm and then was doing payroll at her desk with the baby in a crib beside her at 10 am the next morning. Only she can sign the cheques, so she did what she had to do to keep her business running.

The much lauded childcare tax account which I was promised before my eldest was born has yet to materialise.

I had three days off with my last baby as she had the sense to arrive on a bank holiday weekend.

And sadly, there is a load of mums who just can’t do everything and their businesses get closed down. Not only does the taxman miss out on their income and the income of their suppliers, HMRC also misses the opportunity cost of that business growing and employing people.

Plus: You have a woman with a new baby who feels like her business failed. The personal cost of that is huge - most likely she won’t have the confidence to try again and you’ve just consigned her to a long career break from which she may never escape. By not supporting the self-employed, HMRC risks having a nation of only large companies, and we all know how much tax they pay!

How the government could help

1) Childcare: The much lauded childcare tax account which I was promised before my eldest was born has yet to materialise. He’s now at school.

We need childcare to continue in our businesses, it’s very expensive and we get zero help with it until they turn three despite it being a net benefit to the tax coffers due to all the income we generate: tax paid by nurseries, tax paid by childcare workers, the tax as a self-employed person, the tax their suppliers pay on their income.

Getting more children of self-employed people into childcare is a net benefit to the government.

2) Scrap KIT days for self-employed: The self-employed have enough issues keeping their businesses running without worrying about how many days they’ve worked.

It’s a pathetic sum of money we get anyway, we foot 100% of the bill for replacing ourselves in the business, just let the business owner work as much as they like to keep the business running and secure the job for when they come back to work.

3) Level the playing field: No self-employed work on maternity leave. Perhaps it’s my particular industry, but I’m sick of new starts being paid employees on maternity leave - no one paid me whilst starting up, it’s an unfair competitive advantage.

It should be the same rule for everyone. Either it’s no working for anyone or everyone can work whilst on self-employed parental leave. 

About Francois Badenhorst


Francois is the deputy editor of BusinessZone and UK Business Forums.


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