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Does size matter? Gender-based equal opportunity in UK small and medium enterprises
Carol Woodhams and Ben Lupton
Human Resource and Organisational Behaviour Group, Manchester Metropolitan University Business School, Manchester, UK
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to examine the take up of gender-based equal opportunities policies and practices in small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and explores the relationship between size and take up within the SME sector. Design/methodology/approach – The paper draws on detailed data generated by a European Social Fund sponsored equality audit tool (breakthrough). This is an interactive, questionnaire-based programme incorporating 60 questions on human resources policies and practices relevant to gender-based equal opportunity. The questionnaire was administered within a structured interview, which was recorded and transcribed. In the North West of England, 80 SMEs, across a range of sectors, participated. Findings – The data revealed that, while there was some evidence of take up of good equality practice in SMEs, many small businesses were not active in this area and indeed a sizeable minority were perpetuating discriminatory practices. Medium-sized organisations were more likely to have, and implement, equality policies than small ones. However, in one area, around flexibility to meet carer responsibilities, the small organisations performed better. Analysis of moderating variables suggests that it is factors related to size, rather than size per se, that explain the differences in take up between small- and medium-sized firms. Originality/value – The paper highlights the need to find ways to engage SME managers with the equality agenda. It explores the distinctive features of the small firms and their environment which may inhibit this at present and set out an agenda for future research which will deepen understanding in this area and inform policy. Keywords Equal opportunities, Small to medium-sized enterprises, United Kingdom, Gender Paper type Research paper

Gender-based equal opportunity 143
Received May 2004 Revised October 2005 Accepted October 2005

Introduction The small to medium-sized enterprise (SME) sector accounts for over 99 per cent of businesses in the UK, employing over 55 per cent of the labour force and accounting for 52 per cent of combined business turnover (Small Business Services, 2003). Yet mainstream human resources (HR) literature takes little account of the situation of SMEs (Cassell et al., 2002; Chandler and McEvoy, 2000; Duberley and Walley, 1995; Hendry et al., 1995; Heneman et al., 2000; McElwee and Warren, 2000; Vickerstaff, 1993) and this is reflected in an acute shortage of research on HR practices in SMEs (Williamson, 2001). That said, it is now increasingly acknowledged that there is a need to examine people management practices in the distinctive context of the small firm.
The authors wish to thank the European Social Fund for their financial support of this project and the reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier drafts.

Women in Management Review Vol. 21 No. 2, 2006 pp. 143-169 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 0964-9425 DOI 10.1108/09649420610650710

WIMR 21,2


Early studies of employment relations in the small firm (Bolton Committee Report, 1971 cited in Rainnie, 1989) painted a picture of harmonious relations characterised by an informal and flexible approach to management enabled by the small scale of the enterprises and the close interpersonal relationships that developed. More recently this idea has been re-visited (Holliday, 1995; Jones, 2003a, b; Rainnie, 1989; Ram and Holliday, 1993) and a contrasting “bleak-house” picture of small businesses has emerged, characterised by low wages (Marlow, 2002), numerical flexibility and vulnerable transient labour (Holliday, 1995), high levels of conflict (Jones, 2003a). Whilst this “bleak house”/“happy family” dichotomy is likely to be a considerable oversimplification, and the reality likely to more nuanced and context specific (Wilkinson, 1999; Ram and Holliday, 1993), it is one that has interesting implications for the management of gender in SMEs. Will gender-based equal opportunity (EO) be advanced through a familial concern for maximising the abilities of all members of the firm, or will “bleak houses” further exploit the perceived weaknesses of women at work? This paper presents data from a recent survey of 80 SMEs on the take up of equality practices and explores the distinctions between them related to size. Equal opportunities and SMEs: theory and practice There is little thought given to the approach of SMEs within theoretical frameworks of equality management. Jewson and Mason (1986) draw no distinction between small and large organisations within their radical/liberal dichotomy, nor does Cockburn’s long/short agenda. Healy’s (1993) framework of organisational approaches to equality (further developed by Kirton and Greene, 2000), classifies organisations onto a continuum, at the lower end of which those which reproduce inequality through conscious or subconscious poor practice, through to those at the best practice end and organisations that have comprehensive, proactive and business-focused diversity. However, size and size-related variables are not included in the framework and their impact remains under-theorised. In the absence of explanatory frameworks, we would argue that there are some good reasons to expect that smaller firms might provide a fertile breeding ground for EO practices, be they in relation to the needs of women or other disadvantaged groups. The close working relationships may engender greater sensitivity to difference limit the impact of more institutionalised forms of discrimination. For example, Cassell et al. (2002, p. 683) detected in small firms a “greater tolerance of the difficulties that might be experienced by diverse groups than in larger organisations” partly because managers and employees tended to know each other personally. Second, in a sector where skills shortages are often cited as one of the main barriers to competitiveness (Carroll et al., 1999; Chittenden et al., n.d.; McEvoy, 1984) the professional recruitment and selection practices associated with EO-aware practice would be expected to offer clear advantages. Furthermore, one might expect family-friendly policies to flourish in family firms and to have a significant impact on the culture of the organisation and the retention of key staff. However, there is also a strong case to suggest that the general reluctance to embrace with HR practices in small firms (Bacon et al., 1996; Duberley and Walley, 1995; Marlow, 1997, 2002) might bite particularly hard in the area of equality. First, the cost-benefit case for the introduction for EO initiatives might be less persuasive than that for other HR interventions in a context of competing priorities. Costs of EO may be

About 77 per cent of employers in “large” (over 200 employees) workplaces compared with only 19 per cent of those in small workplaces had developed guidelines or other support for managers relating to pregnancy in the workplace (EOR. Given the evidence that many SME owner-managers tend to regard the extension of the regulatory “burden” as being unhelpful (Kinnie et al. The awareness the case for equality. Cassell et al. shows that two-thirds (64 per cent) of workplaces (25 employees or more) were covered by formal written EO policies in comparison with only 19 per cent of those that employed under 25. There is more information. where it has been addressed the evidence has been fairly positive.. Second. 1999). 1999. be consistent with a reported concern amongst SME owner managers to maintain flexibility in employment matters.. 1996. Figures from the latest WERS survey (Cully et al. Wilkinson (1999) has identified a discourse around employment procedures in which formal approaches are seen as inhibiting responsiveness and compromising management flexibility and autonomy. Harris. though.f. 1997. Cassell et al. 2002. especially within smaller organisations. 1994).. and it is likely that his applies in the area of equality as in other employment matters. The limited empirical evidence on equality practices in SMEs tends to suggest that the factors militating against their adoption play more strongly than those working in their favour.000 employees) organisations are using job descriptions (92 per cent compared to 69 per cent) or competency frameworks (8. may also be absent in an environment where formal management training and large-firm experience is not the norm (Bacon et al. Dex and Scheibl. (1997) note. 1981).2 per cent compared to 0 per cent) for some or all of their posts (IRS. This may be compounded by a perception of “resource poverty” (following Welsh and White. which provides a backcloth to decision-making. as firstly they do not diagnose the approach to equal opportunity in any depth and second... Lane. 2004b). As Vinten et al. 1999) it may be that they are unwilling to embrace the implications of EO regulation enthusiastically. 2003). c. and equality initiatives were also the most highly rated in achieving their objectives. Lane (1994) found that 69 per cent of SME respondents agreed that it was “extremely” or “very” important to provide equality of opportunity. A greater proportion of large (over 1. 2002). However. and as impinging on their desire for autonomy and control (Jones. the area of EO is increasingly subject to state regulation. (2002) found that 78 per cent of SMEs had equal opportunity practices in “medium” or “high” use. and of good practice. about SMEs HR practice in EO relevant areas. Wilkinson. 2004a). they rely on managers’ self-reports which may be particularly affected by social desirability and political correctness on this subject. Carroll et al.more readily apparent than the benefits and proportionally greater in small firms (Curran et al. Reference to EO as an overarching concern or strategy is largely absent in surveys on HRM in small businesses (with notable exceptions. albeit fragmented. In general the picture is one of a lack of sophistication. however. particularly where margins are tight (Jones. 2000. 1999). more that any other HR initiative.. Research Gender-based equal opportunity 145 . Larger organisations (over 500 employees) are more likely to have completed an equal pay review (45 per cent in comparison with 31 per cent of SMEs) (EOR. 2003a). These findings are limited. A reluctance to implement formal approaches to EO (as underpinned by equality legislation) would. Carter et al. and they may be reluctant to jeopardise these.. informality of approach and flexibility of operations are often seen by small businesses as one of their sources of competitive advantage. 2004). 1999. 2003a.

In the remainder of the paper we present empirical evidence from a recent survey of SMEs in the UK to test the following propositions that: (1) There is limited evidence of widespread take up of gender-based equality practices in SMEs. practice and procedure that potentially impact on gender equality. It is more likely that the size variable is merely a reductionist indicator of a number of more complex factors which may directly impact on EO take up. standard lists of interview .. levels of take up of gender-based equality practices will be related to organisation size. 1997. In the area of dispute resolution. This reflects a particular approach to the pursuit of equality. In the foregoing discussion we have suggested that. and it is also in line with the requirements of employment tribunals who seek evidence of objectivity through the use of standard criteria.. for example. 50 employees). transparency and bureaucratisation of decision-making (Jewson and Mason. This second proposition arises by extension from the first – if smallness can account for lower take up of EO across all organisations. on balance. This is not the only possible approach. 1999. Methods In order to test these propositions we draw on data generated by a European Social Fund-sponsored gender-based equality audit tool (Breakthrough). At the same time. procedural fairness. it is clear from the discussion in the previous section that is unlikely that size per se can directly account for differences in gender-based EO take up. 1986. 1962).2 146 conducted only on SMEs has found that word of mouth recruitment remains common (Carroll et al. (2) Within the SME sector. We seek to examine this by testing a third proposition.WIMR 21. 2001) with a lack of attention to career development. 1999). the range of selection techniques used is narrow and the use of job analysis to support recruitment and selection decision-making was the exception rather than the rule (Carroll et al. 2002). that is through objective justification. Some authors have noted that management development tends to be piecemeal and reactive (Keogh and Stewart. there are good reasons to expect that take up of EO will be related to size. In the field of training and development Keogh and Stewart (2001) have noted an absence of systematic training needs analysis in SMEs. ownership (family/non-family) and the presence/non-presence of an HR practitioner. Williams. this relationship should also apply within the SME sector. the relationship between size and take up of EO practices will be moderated by a range of other variables – specifically. with medium-sized SMEs (50-250 employees) being more likely to adopt EO policies than small ones (. fewer than half of small firms have a formal grievance procedure (Marlow. Aims and objectives The impact of organisation size on the take up of equal opportunities practices is not addressed in existing theoretical frameworks. availability of resources and ownership. as follows that: (3) Within the SME sector. Deshpande and Golkar. sector (pubic/private). We have also shown that the limited empirical evidence available tends to support this. but is one that authors consider to represents “just” practice. 1994). This tool focuses on aspects of SME people management policy.

Tables in the findings section illustrate the outcomes of x 2 two-tailed tests of significance. . the value to the SME of the diagnostic report lay within the accuracy of their response on their employment practices. first the size of the Gender-based equal opportunity 147 . The report also gave a detailed list of specific strengths and weaknesses in relation to gender equality practices. shortlisting criteria and so forth (see Healy. Under this definition. of the 80 organisations that took part. it is likely that the organisations that welcomed the Breakthrough audit process are amongst the more people-management focused. No claims are made as to the representativeness of the research sample. 2000 for good practice guidelines). Kirton and Greene. race. As we found significant associations between. performed on the differences between the two samples. questionnaire-based programme of 25 questions of general company information and 60 questions on people management policies and practices relevant to equal opportunity. and . Although it is an approach which we use to measure opportunity on gender grounds. All organisations were in the North West of England. disability. good practice-aware SMEs. 2005). it is equally often applied in respect of any of the group characteristics associated with disadvantage in the workplace.questions. is performed on a modest (but still statistically viable) group. Breakthrough is an interactive. therefore. 50) and medium-sized (50-250) enterprises[2]. The sample was convenience-based. other organisations in the database within the same size band. 1993. Data analysis The focus of this paper is on differences in take up of EO policy and practice between small. Data was collected in a six-month period until Christmas 2003. Each interviewee is given a personalised report. The survey was completed by the individual with the most responsibility for personnel/HR issues took between 45 minutes and 2 hours. therefore. Breakthrough is primarily a tool of organisational development. using Breakthrough as a tool of management education and development. EOC best practice indicators. 55 organisations (69 per cent) were small and the remainder were medium-sized. Surveys were completed by a research team within a structured interview that was recorded and transcribed. The research was conducted on a free consultancy basis. that in this context there is less risk of socially desirable responses.(. In fact. Sample Eighty organisations that conformed to the EU’s definition of an SME[1] participated in the research project. Outcomes are intended to be mutually beneficial which helps to achieve access to research data in a politically sensitive area (Danieli and Woodhams. The analysis below. minimum legal standards. The content of the questions is determined by EOC best practice advice and case law from the Sex Discrimination Act and other related pieces of legislation.g. We would suggest. which benchmarks the equal opportunity performance of their organisation against: . Although we could always be critical of the reliability of employer self-report data (as noted above). e.

. Tables I-X show that. All differences attributed to the size variable alone disappeared when controlled for interfering effects. and third between size and family ownership[5]. there are marked pockets of poor practice. Equal opportunities policy in SMEs This opening section of the survey explored the overarching organisational approach to EO (Table I). 1999)[8]. Within each section. 2003) with 88 per cent of the overall sample using them.. Analysis of the statistical picture of EO practice in SMEs focuses on critical areas of gender-based EO policy and practice namely: . Statistically significant results are indicated with asterisks[6]. to monitor gender in their workplace and have a formal harassment policy and practice. Medium-sized SMEs were also more likely (although only at a less rigorous level of statistical confidence). we review the qualitative data from interview transcripts for explanations of the effects that emerge from the quantitative analysis. treatment of pregnancy in SMEs. Recruitment and selection in SMEs As can be seen from Table II. No further statistical analysis is. therefore. the trend. This finding is in line with previous research (Cully et al. . medium-sized firms were more likely than small firms to have a written EO policy. equal opportunities policy. in line with the third proposition. reward practices. recruitment and selection practices. these three are used to control for spurious interference in the relationship linking size and good EO practice. Further investigation of our interview transcripts. . is in the direction of good EO practice being more likely to be found in the larger SMEs in our sample. and . on all but a couple of occasions. No significant relationship was found between size and a broad manufacturing/service split within this sample. good practice is always (indirectly) associated with increased size. Nevertheless. Findings Findings show that in some areas of HR practice. Table I also shows that medium-sized firms were statistically more likely than small firms to appoint an individual to take responsibility for EO.WIMR 21.2 148 organisation and the presence of an HR professional[3]. even where the difference between samples is statistically insignificant. training and development policy and practice. As can be seen. performed on this classification. . Where statistical significance is found. organisations in our survey were slightly more likely to have job descriptions than has previously been reported (IRS. statistics diagnosing and reporting investigations of the third proposition are only reported where the initial bivariate relationship is statistically significant. positive measures[7]. a written policy statements and documents to use in recruitment publicity and at induction (where they were available). To avoid irrelevant effort. SMEs are conforming to recommended equality practice. second between size and sector[4]. .

43 x 2 ¼ 5. p ¼ 0. p ¼ 0.39.08¥ .06¥ .79 Do you have a written equal opportunities policy? Do you have a person with nominated responsibility for EO? Do you keep records on the gender split of your workforce? Do you have a written harassment policy/procedure? If you have a written EO/diversity policy do you give new employees a copy? Do you include an equal opportunity statement in your recruitment literature? 21 38 13 24 21 38 19 76 2 8 4 16 40 50 15 19 25 31 13 24 36 66 6 11 12 48 12 48 1 4 25 31 48 60 7 9 x 2 ¼ Note: Includes “not applicable”. p ¼ 0. p ¼ *.02 *.21. r ¼ 20.043. p ¼ 0. p ¼ 0.24 x 2 ¼ 3. Equal opportunity policy in SMEs .39. r ¼ 0.03. r ¼ 20.04. p ¼ 0.45 x 2 ¼ 2.08. r ¼ 20.02 *.04 *. “don’t know” and missing responses a Gender-based equal opportunity 149 Table I. r ¼ 20. r ¼ 0.Small firms 5-49 Medium firms 50-250 Total Per Per Per Per Per Per Per Statistical Per Per Yes cent No cent N/Aa cent Yes cent No cent N/Aa cent Yes cent No cent N/Aa cent significance (x 2) 29 21 27 22 40 32 58 1 2 13 60 10 40 0 37 46 42 49 26 47 2 4 18 72 7 28 – 45 56 33 41 52 2 1 38 34 62 – 17 68 8 32 – 38 47 42 53 – 3 1 53 26 49 – 20 80 5 20 – 49 61 31 39 – x 2 ¼ 5. p ¼ 0. p ¼ 0.94. p ¼ 0. p ¼ 0. p ¼ 0.76 x 2 ¼ 3.

p ¼ 0. Writing job descriptions and person specifications Small firms 5-49 Medium firms 50-250 Total Statistical Per Per Per Per Per Per Per significance Per Per (x 2) Yes cent No cent N/Aa cent Yes cent No cent N/Aa cent Yes cent No cent N/Aa cent 70 59 88 75 10 20 12 25 0 0 – – x 2 ¼ 0.41.15 .150 WIMR 21. “don’t know” and missing responses Table II. p ¼ 0.15 x 2 ¼ 1.2 Do you give your employees a written list of their job responsibilities Do you make a written list of the skills and abilities that you want candidates to have? 49 38 70 16 30 0 – 21 84 4 16 0 89 6 11 0 – 21 84 4 16 0 – – Note: aIncludes “not applicable”.68.

63 Gender-based equal opportunity 151 Table III.32 x 2 ¼ 0.46. p ¼ 0.11 x 2 ¼ 1. p ¼ 0.68 x 2 ¼ 0. Information sought during selection . p ¼ 0. p ¼ 0. p ¼ 0.42.3.Do you seek information on any of these points during recruitment/selection stages? Per cent 46 27 6 4 6 15 3 0 1 1 60 12 0 4 4 40 18 8 4 5 Per cent Total 25 15 3 2 3 50 22 4 Small firms 5-49 Medium firms 50-250 Per cent Statistical significance (x 2) Marital status Number/age of children Plans to have children Husband’s employment Living arrangements x 2 ¼ 1.17 x 2 ¼ 2.08.01.

do you ask questions that are unrelated to the job? Do you shortlist your candidates consistently against the same criteria for the same job? After shortlisting do you record and keep reasons for rejection or success? Are interviewers trained in equal opportunities? Do you give all interviewees the same length of time? Do you standardise the questions asked at interview? Do you ask females and males different questions about their domestic arrangements? 45 82 10 18 0 – 16 64 9 36 0 – 61 76 19 40 28 18 35 44 9 16 43 78 3 6 3 12 80 11 20 0 – 22 88 3 22 64 20 37 0 – 18 72 6 24 12 88 33 35 64 2 4 10 40 15 60 0 1 0 0 – – 51 21 38 6 11 16 64 9 36 0 – – 4 73 12 22 3 6 21 84 4 16 0 – 61 44 28 53 66 12 76 55 35 67 83 15 16 30 50 26 14 65 Do you make notes.13. r ¼ 0. p ¼ 0.2 During interviews. p ¼ 0.152 WIMR 21.39 x 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ 3.24 x 2 ¼ 0. p ¼ 0.29 18 72 7 28 0 – 46 58 34 42 0 0 x 2 ¼ 0.51.27. Selection procedures Small firms 5-49 Medium firms 50-250 Total Per Per Per Per Per Per Per Per Per Yes cent No cent N/Aa cent Yes cent No cent N/Aa cent Yes cent No cent N/Aa cent Statistical significance (x 2) 24 0 – x 2 ¼ 3.38 x 2 ¼ 0. p ¼ 0.76.16 20 38 63 33 17 81 3 6 2 – 4 8 x 2 ¼ 0. p ¼ 0. p ¼ 0.07¥ . p ¼ 0.34 1 0 3 – 4 x 2 ¼ 0.06¥ . record reasons for non-appointments and keep them? 28 51 27 49 0 – Note: Includes “not applicable”.01.30 a . p ¼ 0.32. r ¼ 2 0. p ¼ 0.18.98. “don’t know” and missing responses Table IV. p ¼ 0.

27 x 2 ¼ 2.78. p ¼ 0.23. Making selection decisions 153 . p ¼ 0.91. p ¼ 0.07 x 2 ¼ 0.19.38 Gender-based equal opportunity Table V.67.What do you base assessments on? 41 34 32 8 21 10 18 1 58 15 38 10 2 7 40 8 28 4 75 62 24 16 96 64 65 50 42 10 28 11 Small firms 5-49 Per cent Medium firms 50-250 81 63 53 13 35 14 Per cent Total Per cent Statistical significance (x 2) We tend to rely on factual evidence of past performance.28.34 x 2 ¼ 0.02 *.04 * x 2 ¼ 0. p ¼ 0.10¥ . r ¼ 0. p ¼ 0. r ¼ 20. p ¼ 0. r ¼ 20.11. p ¼ 0. p ¼ 0.35. behaviour and achievements We give them a trial in a work related activity We like to see whether someone’s personality fits in We like to see if someone’s appearance/image fits in We tend to be guided by instinct We decide if we like them or not x 2 ¼ 5.52 x 2 ¼ 2.08¥ . p ¼ 0.28.

Training in SMEs Small firms 5-49 Medium firms 50-250 Total Per Per Per Per Per Per Per Statistical Per Per Yes cent No cent N/Aa cent Yes cent No cent N/Aa cent Yes cent No cent N/Aa cent significance (x2) 51 55 36 8 45 10 3 28 4 35 x 2 ¼ 2.52.72 x 2 ¼ 0.40. p ¼ 0. p ¼ WIMR 21.03.09¥ . p ¼ 0. p ¼ 0.11 11 59 74 12 15 x 2 ¼ 0. p ¼ 0.57 . “don’t know” and missing responses Table VI.2 Do you have a policy providing equality training and promotion? 25 If so. r ¼ 0.33 88 10 12 0 – x 2 ¼ 2. does this policy offer equality to both full and part time employees? 26 Do you keep information/records on the training your staff receive? 46 Do you review your training record for potential bias against your female employees? 6 45 47 6 11 23 42 18 72 2 8 5 (2)0 28 51 2 4 16 64 8 32 1 4 41 44 84 9 16 0 – 24 96 1 4 0 – 70 11 41 75 8 14 3 12 18 72 4 72 9 Note: aIncludes “not applicable”.

p ¼ 0. p ¼ 0. Reward in SMEs .03 *.14.93.28 11 24 31 x 2 ¼ 4. r ¼ 0. p ¼ 0.8. “don’t know” and missing responses a Gender-based equal opportunity 155 Table VII.35 Note: Includes “not applicable”.Small firms 5-49 Medium firms 50-250 Total Per Per Per Per Per Per Per Statistical Per Per Yes cent No cent N/Aa cent Yes cent No cent N/Aa cent Yes cent No cent N/Aa cent significance (x 2) Do you ensure that salaries are equal for females and males who carry out jobs of the same or similar value? Is the allocation of overtime offered fairly between your part and full time employees? 43 78 4 7 8 15 21 84 4 16 0 64 80 8 29 54 9 17 16 29 17 68 0 8 32 46 58 9 10 8 10 x 2 ¼ 0.

p ¼ 0. p ¼ 0.31.12 x 2 ¼ 0. p ¼ 0. p ¼ 0.36 x 2 ¼ 1.33. p ¼ 0.00 * * *.24 x 2 ¼ 1.47 x 2 ¼ 0.156 WIMR 21. p ¼ x 2 ¼ 2.22 x 2 ¼ 8.26.45. p ¼ 0.2 How do you determine your rates of pay for the majority of your staff? Per cent 69 13 47 11 55 29 11 26 24 6 8 3 5 11 5 20 20 44 24 32 12 15 4 9 60 16 36 53 11 35 11 35 27 12 22 16 Per cent Total 38 7 26 6 30 16 6 14 13 In relation to their experience We pay the minimum wage In line with industry pay standards In accordance with a job evaluation scheme On the basis of the numbers of hours worked According to their performance It depends on the market demand for their skills at the time of employment Based on the traditional pay rates of the company Whatever we think is right Table VIII.37. Methods for allocating a rate of pay in SMEs Small firms 5-49 Medium firms 50-250 Per cent 66 14 44 14 44 34 15 28 20 Statistical significance (x 2) x 2 ¼ 0. p ¼ 0.18 .03 * x 2 ¼ 1. p ¼ x 2 ¼ 0. p ¼ 0. r ¼ 20.

p ¼ *. p ¼ 0.Small firms 5-49 Medium firms 50-250 Total Statistical Per Per Per Per Per Per Per significance Per Per Yes cent No cent N/Aa cent Yes cent No cent N/Aa cent Yes cent No cent N/Aa cent (x 2) Have you allowed the childbearing age of a candidate to affect your decision? 7 13 45 82 3 5 1 4 24 96 0 – 8 10 69 86 3 4 Would you employ a woman who was already pregnant? 25 45 22 40 8 15 15 60 10 18 3 12 40 50 32 36 11 14 x 2 ¼ 1.20 x 2 ¼ 5.23 Note: Includes “not applicable”.17. r ¼ 0. The treatment of pregnant women in SMEs 157 . p ¼ 0. “don’t know” and missing responses a Gender-based equal opportunity Table IX.

2 If women are under-represented in your workforce.63 x 2 ¼ 2. r ¼ 0.76. p ¼ 0.30. Positive measures in SMEs Small firms 5-49 Medium firms 50-250 Total Per Per Per Per Per Per Per Per Per Statistical Yes cent No cent N/Aa cent Yes cent No cent N/Aa cent Yes cent No cent N/Aa cent significance (x 2) x 2 ¼ 0. p ¼ 0. p ¼ 0.30 x 2 ¼ 0.4. p ¼ 0. r ¼ 20.72 x 2 ¼ 0. p ¼ 0. r ¼ 20.10¥ .06 x 2 ¼ 4. p ¼ 0. p ¼ 0.06¥ .158 WIMR 21. r ¼ 20.60 x 2 ¼ 2. do you seek to increase their representation? Do you reserve jobs specifically for women? Do you think about targeting female applicants when you are placing your job adverts Do you provide special training opportunities for women if you see a need When placing job adverts do you mention flexible employment options Do you dwell on female caring responsibilities when making changes to working hours? 10 17 31 36 66 2 4 4 16 21 84 0 21 26 57 71 18 25 45 20 36 4 16 10 40 11 44 14 17 35 43 31 2 39 3 16 29 37 67 2 4 7 28 16 64 2 8 23 28 53 66 4 5 41 52 10 18 3 6 15 60 9 36 1 4 56 71 19 24 4 5 24 44 25 45 6 11 11 44 13 52 1 4 35 44 48 47 7 9 41 10 18 39 71 6 11 9 74 6 11 8 15 16 64 36 6 13 34 52 3 3 12 12 57 19 70 24 12 52 26 65 11 9 14 11 Do you impose overtime Do you allow your employees time off to deal with domestic emergencies 52 95 0 – 3 6 Note: Includes “not applicable”. p ¼ 0.13. “don’t know” and missing responses Table X.43 x 2 ¼ 3.07¥ .00.04.01 * * 20 80 0 – 5 20 72 90 0 – 8 10 a . p ¼ p ¼ 0. p ¼ 0. p ¼ 0.9¥ .40 x 2 ¼ 0.30.

Table IV gives details of many equal-opportunity relevant selection practices. business services). certainly marital status. based on data analysed to this point that many of the sample were conforming to good practice in many areas of the selection procedure. 2003). Although most of them were more likely to be asked by smaller firms. private sector.).however. but to “relax candidates” and establish rapport. differences here were not significant. giving all candidates the same length of time at interview and keeping written records. manufacturer: precision-engineering components). I wouldn’t ask marital status. Most. Hopefully not pregnant because they would be too old. One organisation. Qualitative comments across both samples revealed that SME managers regarded the responsibility of parenthood as relevant territory of for their investigations: Interviewee: I think most of them (the questions) are relevant. when we advertise a job we have a very definite job specification (. small though it was. the importance of having written records: The reason why we actually had a lady who came for an interview and she didn’t get the job and she then started trying to kick up a bit of a stink saying “you didn’t employ me because I’m a woman”. rather than a concern for standardisation and transparency of information. private sector. claimed to be producing standard lists of questions to be asked at interviews. Gender-based equal opportunity 159 Table III gives data on a number of potentially discriminatory questions that might be asked during the recruitment/selection phase. . Oh dear me we had a spate of them here . In fact. but may say to someone “do you have family?” only really to get a conversation point if anything (25-49 employees. education). age of children certainly. One interviewee explained. on the basis of their experience. Interviewer: Would you consider asking it? Interviewee: Yes I would do if it was relevant (11-24 employees. pain in the arse” (11-24 employees. no. Many of the respondents proposed that they were using this information not to assess suitability. So we recorded on the application form what the pros and cons were. But that this line of investigation was not always limited to women. so we just ask questions related to that (11-24 employees. ISO 9000. not for profit sector. The use of person specifications is also broadly in line with previous survey evidence (IRS. we’ve recently done away with desirable and just put essential. manufacturer: jig-boring components). was proud of its practices: We are at our best in terms of equal opportunities as we have. reveals that this practice was often prompted by other requirements. but we . We go through the standard procedure of making sure we ask the questions that are directly related to those individual areas of work and whether they are essential or desirable. for example.e. Well we used to at one time. I said “oh no bloody more here that’s bloody married. . . and I’ve only asked them one time if they were married because we had more blokes here with marital problems. i. We find it somewhat remarkable. one after the other. indicating a lack of awareness of the way that this type of information is often used to form and “impression” of candidates that may be potentially discriminatory: I occasionally ask. private sector. .

I mean apart from the personality end. the picture of the person I wanted was a mature woman. It is remarkable. Table V gives a number of methods of making employment-related judgements about the suitability of candidates. warehouse. if you like. wholesale and retail). Almost all of the organisations shied away from directly asking personal questions. Most of these selection practices did not vary significantly in line with firm size but on all occasions. instinct and compatibility. in line with themes explored above. This finding is the only size related effect in this study that does not disappear when the three intervening variables are used as controls. There’s nothing more you can shortlist against (100-149 employees. manufacturer: jig-boring components).WIMR 21. indicating that either SMEs with more employees are. Medium firms were more likely than small ones to base decisions on factual evidence. other aspects of recruitment and selection practice show a distinct lack of awareness or regard for good practice and the risks of potential litigation. most of the time you are getting people straight from school who don’t want to go to college. Judith was the first female employee. manufacturer: coach builders (talking about interview arrangements)). But when you are recruiting like drivers. but otherwise there were no significant differences related to firm size. I shouldn’t do really because we’ve all been through it (11-24 employees. manufacturer: labels and nameplates). medium-sized SMEs were more likely to conform to good practice. more likely to rely on factual assessments for . . but as the quote below reveals. Sometimes the differences in treatment were only superficial but were indicative of ingrained attitudes: We give them a cup of tea and let them sit down. private sector. particularly the smaller ones were making subjective (and therefore. that does not mean that they had dismissed them as a potentially relevant factor in decision-making: I carefully got around it last time. Women have to be treated differently. many of the total sample are not consistently shortlisting candidates against the same criteria for the same job and 15 per cent of the total sample admitted asking males and females different questions about their domestic arrangements. then you need that sort of intuition feeling. private sector. men have to stand up. more difficult to defend and justify) judgements based on perceptions of “fitting in”. but my. 160 However. It works to their advantage . . . You know (. As shown within the quote below. that 76 per cent of the total sample admitted asking questions at interview that were unrelated to the job. they gas a lot (11-24 employees. I deliberately didn’t go for a younger person. they want to work. private sector. It avoids a lot of what I would class as [gynaecological] problems. Table V is presented in a different formal because respondents were able to tick more than one option.2 shot her out of the water because we did employ a woman for the job (25-49 employees.) the more you are recruiting people who are more qualified then obviously it becomes harder to choose and make a decision. The table shows that most organisations were using more than one set of criteria and many organisations. it was sometimes difficult to conceive of an alternative way of assessing candidates: Probably why it’s a bit more informal is because of the level as well. for example. . private sector. for that reason alone. And given the choice I would do again.

community service). thought the topic irrelevant to them. pay by the hour. Care work. or did not know. that a proportion of both samples had not considered equal pay issues within their workforce. with retail and other types of jobs.) people start off about £5 an hour so we are not the highest payer but we feel we are offering other opportunities. Once again. . Gender-based equal opportunity 161 Reward in SMEs Table VII demonstrates just how prepared organisations in this sample were to reveal their EO related weaknesses within the audit interview. we are finding it very hard to recruit (. private sector. their arrogance or honesty that so many answered in a way that could be deemed “incorrect” and potentially unlawful. Further qualitative investigation revealed that managers were prepared to defend the grounds on which they were making their decisions and that often they were related to the job that was being performed. most firms preferring to reward experience. It also demonstrates that records are kept (this time on training) in most SMEs. or that another intervening variable (s) that contribute to the effect were not identified as a possible control. what happens you get people round us who don’t. Problems inherent in low pay were often linked to resourcing problems: We struggle to get people in full stop. Table VIII shows that. Training and development in SMEs Table VI shows that. but this information is not then used in any way that is reflective of the principles of equality. medium-sized SMEs were more likely to demonstrate good practice. although medium-sized SMEs were more likely to use this method. Pregnancy in SMEs This section (Table IX) contained some of the obviously “right” and “wrong” questions within the survey.selection. . But you are competing a lot. . manufacturer: cardboard boxes). not for profit. It is surprising. or match the market rate. given the amount of publicity on equal pay in the business press. . once again. And I try and I try and I try and I try and I keep on pushing them in to it but I think. good training policy and practice is more likely to be found in medium-sized enterprises. they responded: I honestly don’t know what the answer to that would be. It is surprising and reveals a great deal about the levels of respondents’ ignorance. That’s the biggest problem that stops them. that would be a very difficult question to . promotion and development and stuff like that (11-24 employees. it was not popular in either sample. so we are struggling (100-149 employees. avoiding most problems of indirect discrimination and subjectivity is to use a system of job evaluation. so . they can’t appreciate the difference between supervision and how you set yourself apart from one of the girls or one of the lads. so I know there’s a level. When asked if they would employ a woman who was already pregnant. There were no convincing size-related effects. The most transparent method of determining pay. Because technically pregnancy isn’t an illness. That’s a very difficult question. The quote below illustrates some of the complexities inherent in working toward outcome-based equality in training and promotion opportunities: It’s not true of all ladies but they are not necessarily very good on the supervision team.

We should remember. private sector. manufacturer: plumbing components). I do like that . Wow. Manufacturer cardboard boxes). cos (sic) they are much much better workers. elective surgery for example or they could be having a baby. 35 per cent down time (11-24 employees. manufacturer: labels and nameplates). getting on with other people (11-24 employees. Furthermore. and even reserving jobs specifically for women. .WIMR 21. My biggest problem to be honest is recruiting them. they could I don’t know. (sic) accuracy. . I don’t know. 162 Positive measures in SMEs Table X shows the SME’s responses across a range of measures that have the potential to positively promote the opportunities of women in the workforce including measures such as offering flexible in working practices and focused training for women. it’s not a question you could automatically say yes or automatically say no to (25-49 employees. this could be a feature of SME owners in medium-sized organisations having more knowledge of the legal context and delivering socially desirable responses. give them a better chance. We’ve had some people who’ve been here and couple of weeks have said “actually we’re pregnant now” (100-149 employees. and the best women tend to be a bit more mature than the younger ones. And yet. Now 13 weeks out of 43. private sector. manufacturer: electric parts for trains). If someone said “I need to be out for 3 months”. 44. I’d be happy for someone to take 2 weeks out of us. small SMEs achieve better practice scores on measures offering flexibility (items 5-8) and are more likely to positively discriminate (item 2) in favour of females. that. medium-sized SMEs have generally been more advanced than their smaller relatives on EO-related practice. it’s not cut and dried question really? I mean if you are just employing secretaries or people to sit at a typewriter you could say yes or no. private sector. once again. I don’t get enough and so when I find females. . Up to this point. that’s 30. good housekeeping. and. I get far more men then women. Table X contains some of the most important findings of EO practice related to SME size. because one thing I am. community service). 3 and 4 above). on measures of positive action (items 1. But because there is such a wide diversity of jobs that we do. So therefore I’m happier to allow flexible hours to an extent (11-24 employees. Q: In terms of what? I: Dextrously. the difference in percentage scores between the two samples is much closer than is typical. I think I said earlier I’m quite keen on getting women for certain jobs. Am I allowed to say I don’t know? Because I think that’s the honest answer. Say a job application. but it could equally be indicative of a genuine direction that smaller SMEs are less aware of or troubled by legal compliance. private sector. that’s no problem because the average working year is 44 weeks. but women are far better workers. are more prepared to exercise management prerogative in line with what they see as their business need: I allow part time. doing more than one job at a time. Now there’s a question. are able and prepared to offer more flexibility to their employees. not for profit. about 5 per cent we can cope with someone being out for 5 per cent of the time. in interpreting this finding. Quality. whenever I find one I probably do positive discrimination to help them. as indicated in the quotation below. considering female access to job adverts during the recruitment process.8 weeks so 2 weeks out is about a 20th.2 answer because its not.

Summary of the findings We set out to examine three propositions. The exception to this rule. Many of these relationships were statistically significant. harassment and training policies. For example. the statistically significant relationships between size and “take up” were moderated by these three intervening variables. 20 per cent of the organisations in the sample use an unstructured approach. our survey demonstrates that in many instances the practices reported are more frequently aligned with “good” HR and EO practice. selection. The first was that there would be limited evidence of take up of formal equal opportunities policies in small firms. Twenty per cent do not ensure that men and women who are in the same jobs (or do work of equal value) are paid the same. would be likely to be related both to size and to the take up of equality practices – the presence of an HR practitioner. training. Where meaningful comparisons with previous SME surveys (Cully et al. Twenty-nine per cent of participants do not use the same criteria for men and women when shortlisting and 44 per cent alter their interview questions depending on the gender of the candidate. Almost without exception medium-sized SMEs in our sample were more like to have composed formal equality policies and implemented mainstream equal opportunity-aware practices. 2003) are possible. on the basis of the literature reviewed in the introductory section of the paper. Although we should not ignore the fact that the survey revealed considerable evidence of good practice in SMEs. in the smaller firms there was Gender-based equal opportunity 163 . On the other hand. of course. within the SME category.. but given that other surveys are likely to suffer the same weaknesses. Our final proposition was that the relationship between size and take up of equality practices would be moderated by other variables. Discussion The lack of evidence for the take up of equal opportunities “good practice” amongst many of the SMEs in our sample will be of concern to those seeking to promote gender equality at work. there is evidence in the data that many organisations were actively perpetuating both direct and indirect discrimination. paying “whatever we think is right”. In determining pay rates. This received overwhelming support in the data. We found many examples of “good practice” in the firms surveyed. IRS. Owners admitted that men and women are frequently managed differently though recruitment. when asked if they would employ a woman who was already pregnant. payment and promotion processes. lies in the final table which reverses the direction of that trend in most instances. The second proposition was that. The implication here is that size does not act independently as a variable determining an SME’s approaches to equality. In all but two cases under testing. notably in the area of making selection decisions and offering flexibility in the face of caring responsibilities. whether or not the organisation was family owned. 1999. There was also widespread composition of formal equal opportunity. We tested for three such variables which we felt. but in conjunction with other organisational features. This may be attributable to the effects of sample or self-report bias. it may indicate some limited improvements in EO practice in SMEs over these earlier research findings. and whether or not it was in the private sector. The picture that emerged here was mixed. adoption of EO good practice would be related to size. 50 per cent of organisations said they would not or could not be sure.

best practice equality management assumes a normative approach. we felt is was unlikely that this was because they had been rejected in favour of a deliberate strategy to adopt more informal approaches to tackle equality matters. there is a danger here in drawing crude stereotypes of SMEs which . We suggested at the outset of the paper that we expected take up of formal equality initiatives in the SME sector to be less than comprehensive.2 164 widespread evidence of an absence of formal equality procedures. at worst provide a minimum set of standards for equal treatment for all employees in all organisations and a necessary platform for developing more proactive (for example. 1990) and the formal equal opportunities policy approach has often been found to be an “empty shell” lacking in substantive content (Hoque and Noon. 2002). 1997). and there is evidence that these interventions are framed as business initiatives rather than understood as equality initiatives. An approach guided by the spirit underpinning much of equality legislation as opposed to its detail might achieve similar ends through less bureaucratic means.. equality for women through other more informal methods (for example. We could argue in line with Taylor (2001. bureaucratic control mechanisms. 1991. lack of specialist expertise (Carroll et al. 2004). and the formal equality procedures that it promotes. the desire to preserve owner-manager autonomy and control (Jones. Lewis and Dyer. 1997). suited and practised (or assumed to be practised). the preference for informality and flexibility in employment matters (Vinten et al. 2003a. Wilkinson. Gibbon. seeing themselves as having less need for formal. the appeal of the “business case” arguments for equality is contextual (Kirton and Greene.. 2002). The legislation. For example. 140) writing about “HRM” more generally. Although these arguments carry some weight. Where we found the basic procedures to be absent in the survey data. It is also noted by Cully et al. Owners/managers might be working hard toward. diversity-based) approaches. 2000) and in many SMEs the cost benefit analysis may point away from action being taken (Dickens. Furthermore. However. and our results bear this out. who state that small business managers tend to rely on direct control. Some of the data in Table X suggest this. (1999). that this approach may be tantamount to “subjecting smaller organisations to tests as to conformity to an alien norm”. 2000. and in some cases examples of actively discriminatory practices. responding flexibly on an ad hoc basis to requests for time-off for childcare reasons). in large organisations. returning to the point that quantitative measurement of EO relevant HR practices does not necessarily indicate either the presence or absence of actual equality of opportunity.WIMR 21. rather it was because minimum good practice (and in some cases legal requirements) was being ignored – a point borne out strongly in the qualitative data. we remain concerned that in many cases our research revealed that even Hoque and Noon’s “shell” of equality practice is missing. 1999) and lack of awareness of the potential benefits arising from equality policies and practices. 1999). and have every intention of achieving. This finding corresponds with previous research conducted on family-friendly practices in SMEs (Lewis. In interpreting the findings. a reluctance to engage with regulation (Harris. It may also be the case that a procedural model of equality is not the only one that could achieve substantive outcomes. 2003. we need to add a cautionary note. A number of contributory factors were cited. Procedural mechanisms have been criticised as key levers to bring about equality (Aitkenhead and Liff. p. only the presence of those interventions that are considered likely to help bring it about.

we would suggest the smaller SMEs are more likely than larger ones to lack managers with specialist HR expertise. the lack of an HR practitioner (Woodhams and Lupton. for example. to be more comfortable operating without formal policies and to be less likely to be able to afford the investment in developing and operating 24 March 2005. Although there is no analysis related to the following independent variables in the tables. For example. 75 per cent of organisations had a male CEO/owner. The study also indicated that better practice is more common in medium-sized organisations than it is in small ones. It may be that family owned firms are less inclined to rely on formal. It is also interesting that family ownership is a moderating variable in the relationship between size and take up of equality policies and practices. to investigate in more detail. To conclude. that size is not the only explanatory variable and that it does not operate independently. but also evidence of widespread failure to adopt basic procedures enterprise_policy/sme_definition/index_en. in some cases. as Wilkinson (1999) noted in relation to small firm employee relations generally. There are some encouraging signs. It seems reasonable to conclude that size impacts on the take up of equality factors because smallness is associated with other features. this study has shown a mixed picture of take up of formal equality policies and practices in the SME sector. and take up of. 80 per cent were in the private sector Gender-based equal opportunity 165 . to see with these findings are replicated in a larger sample and second. This emerged strikingly and consistently in the data across a range of measures. Our second main finding is that small organisations are less likely to adopt equality policies and practices than medium-sized ones. through further qualitative work. However. the majority of organisations had been established less than 16 years.. equality initiatives. More details of the size distribution of the sample can be gained from the full report (Woodhams et al. less likely to draw on specialist expertise and more likely to guard owner manager autonomy and prerogative. It is clear from our data that many SMEs do engage proactively with the equality agenda and do implement formal equality procedures. 2005). 2004). Our findings in relation to our third proposition indicated that size ceases to explain the differences in take up when other factors are considered. Organisations with under 250 employees. 2. Notes 1. and lend weight to. comply with minimum legislative requirements. bureaucratic procedures. a feature that would be expected to be associated with greater awareness of. our general line of argument that there may be factors associated with “smallness” which impact negatively on the propensity to practise equality of opportunity. We have no direct evidence in the data which explains this. it will also be clear. have an annual turnover of under 50 m es or an annual balance sheet total of less than 43 m es ( to recognise the heterogeneity of the sector and of the different contexts in which different SMEs are operating. but it does follow from. Further research is needed in two areas. First. The evidence so far indicates that organisation size is an important variable to consider in understanding the level of take up of equality policy and practice. how size and its interaction with other contextual factors impacts on the take up of equality policies and practices in SMEs.

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com/reprints . Kelly. 3. She teaches across a wide range of programmes at all levels and leads the equality elective on the MA in Human Resource Ben Lupton is a Principal Lecturer in HRM at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School. His research interests are in the areas of equal opportunities. About the authors Carol Woodhams is a Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management. (2002). P.. London. Publications include articles in the International Journal of Social Research 44 Nos 8/9. He has responsibility for a range of Postgraduate Programmes in HRM and Management. Reid. and McCartan. Gender-based equal opportunity 169 To purchase reprints of this article please e-mail: reprints@emeraldinsight.emeraldinsight. “Training and HRD strategies in family and non-family owned small businesses: a comparative approach”.Further reading CIPD (2005). and research methodology. “People management in SMEs: an analysis of human resource strategies in family and non-family business”. Small Business Management. Journal of Social Policy and Personnel Review. Or visit our web site for further details: www. She has published widely in issues of equality and diversity. June. Ben was an HR practitioner in the National Health Service. “Employment and the law: burden or benefit?”. (2002). Ben teaches employee resourcing. B. T. (2002). Matlay.Woodhams@mmu. Journal of Small Business & Enterprise Development. gender and occupations and the careers of HR professionals. Vol. Stokes. Survey report. pp. Carol Woodhams is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: C. He is a chartered fellow of the CIPD. specifically focusing on gender and disability equality. 9 No. She is a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD. 357-69. Vol. 245-59. She has taught and researched at the University since 1993 after a successful career in international hospitality management. D. Before joining MMU. H. R. 4th ed. Continuum. Morrow. selection testing and assessment. Education þ Training..