14% of small businesses won't employ ANY women because of discrimination fears

No, that's not a typo...

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 15 Feb 2018

‘14% of small business owners said they would not hire a woman or someone from an ethnic minority for fear of "tribunals" or accusations about workplace discrimination. This rose to 18% among male business owners.’

Our first reaction when we saw that was ‘is this statistic from 1972?’. Then we looked at the source, AXA Insurance.

As a general rule, you’ve got to be careful with ‘research’ published by businesses and distributed by press office. It exists for the sake of publicity rather than advancing knowledge, which makes MT wary. But this is from a reputable company and it had a sample size of 800 micro-businesses (with 10 employees or fewer), not eight.

Its findings are also sadly not that hard to believe. Almost all the noise around gender inequality at work comes from or is directed at large employers. You see headlines about the gender pay gap at TSB or Virgin Money, not Gary’s Kebab House.

Yet the smallest businesses arguably have the greatest problems around equal hiring and promotion, or at least that's how a lot of them see it.

The elephant in the room is parental leave. When an employee of a large business takes substantial time away from work, it naturally causes some disruption, but the firm has the resources to handle it. It’ll also be well aware of the benefits that come from an enlightened attitude to parental leave, which more than compensate for any disruption: access to a bigger, brighter talent pool and more diverse thinking at work.

These apply for small firms too, but the disruption of a staff member going on paid leave for several months is potentially far more profound. If you’re a team of two, it’s much harder to find someone to cover for such an absence than when you’re a team of 20.

Of course, part of the reason why those 14% of small businesses wouldn’t hire women will be down to good old chauvinism – the statistic grouped women with ethnic minority employees too, remember. But we'd bet if they'd been asked about people with disabilities or ongoing health problems that might require unexpected time off, the response would have been similar.

The viewpoint was neatly summed up by a small business owner and sexist dinosaur MT had met at a dinner once.

'What’s the point in hiring someone, spending all that money developing them, if they’re going to go and get themselves pregnant in a couple of years and disappear again?' Asked Barney (not his real name). 'It’s more trouble than it’s worth.’

We beg to differ - cutting out half of the workforce from your recruiting process just in case they have a baby seems like a rather bad idea to us, especially given how many women a) manage their careers just fine despite being mothers or b) don't have children, actually. 

But in many respects, this shows how far we have to go to address the underlying causes of gender inequality. In the case of parenthood and family, a major problem lies in the assumption that having children will cause women to take extended parental leave, then possibly go part-time, or somehow be less committed, or quit – and that this reduces their short and long-term value to the business. The same assumptions and generalisations do not apply to men.

While that attitude persists - it’s hard to see unenlightened hiring practices disappearing from small businesses altogether, particularly when the law is so tricky to enforce (how do you prove why someone didn’t hire you?).

The good news, at least, is that while 14% of small businesses would not hire women, that didn’t apply to the other 86%. Or at least, they didn’t admit to it.

And if the problem is cultural, there’s something everyone can do to fix it – if culture is the way we do things round here, then our actions will speak louder than our words.

Image credit: Gazlast/Shutterstock

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