This report profiles human resource management practices in small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) with a particular focus on those relevant to gender-based equal opportunities. The data collection and analysis provides a summary of the approach of the participating SMEs toward issues of gender equality. The project was supported by the European Social Fund (ESF) and by a number of commercial and industrial partners. The SME sector is of considerable importance to the UK economy and yet very little research has been done on the approach to the management of gender-based equality. Research on the sector’s general human resource practices paints a picture of an unsophisticated, non-strategic and informal approach to the management of people. The objective of this report is to examine whether or not the same is true of their approach to gender equality. It further examines the data for differences between small (10-49 employees) and medium sized (50-249 employees) organisations. In order to achieve access to SMEs and provide each participating organisation with information relevant to both management and organisation development, the project team designed a piece of original benchmarking software that generated a number of quantitative assessments of organisation practice. Each participating organisation was given a report that assessed their performance against a) minimum equal opportunity legal requirements, b) Equal Opportunity Commission best equality practice indicators and c) their competitors in the same size band. A total of 80 eligible assessments were carried out in the North West of the UK between July and December 2003. Assessments were conducted on the organisation’s premises with those individuals who held primary responsibility for human resource decisions. Organisations were drawn from a variety of sectors. The assessment process produced both qualitative (interview transcripts) and quantitative (in SPSS format) data. Overall, the evidence in the report shows that informal, potentially discriminatory people management procedures are still widespread, particularly in the practice of equal opportunity. For example more than a fifth of SME respondents admit to asking questions about applicants’ childcare commitments during recruitment. Forty-four per cent admit to asking different questions of men and women, and nearly a third state that they apply different selection criteria to men and women candidates. Only 35% report that interviewers were trained in EO, and the same number report that they made appointments “guided by instinct”. Thirty-six percent of respondents say that they wouldn’t employ a woman who was already pregnant. Only 18% of respondents report that they take active steps to redress gender imbalances in their workforce. The smaller organisations often demonstrate poor practice that is differentiated from medium organisations to an extent that is statically significant. These findings will be of concern for those seeking to advance the equal opportunities agenda in the SME sector, particularly given that the data is derived from self-reports which may, if anything, paint an overly positive picture. The study concludes that SMEs demonstrate a preference for flexibility over formal policy and an ignorance of “good practice” and legislative requirements. It suggests that despite the persuasive business (not to mention ethical) case to be made for the introduction of gender-based equal opportunity practices in small businesses, the formalisation of procedures - that is key to the promotion of equality - appears to be undermined by an SMEs desire for informality, flexibility and autonomy. They equality agenda also rubs awkwardly against the notion of the ‘family’ firm and falls victim to the more general resistance to employment regulation.
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