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SMEs encouraging women in the workplace

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Now that women increasingly participate in the workforce, society is left with the challenge of filling the unpaid labour gap—the traditional care-giver and home-maker roles held by women—and has to learn how to provide male and female workers with the flexibility and time to provide both paid and unpaid labour. The failure to provide balance significantly impacts workers’ quality of life, including reduced productive capacity, damaged health and the diminished viability of society as a whole. According to Nancy Folbre in her book, Who Pays for the Kids? Gender and the Structures of Constraint, the lack of flexibility in work hours, resistance to accommodating the demands of family labour, emphasis on continuous work experience—all of which are typically explained as methods to enhance work efficiency—are far more efficient for employers and men than for women, children or society as a whole. 

Some of the initiatives which have worked in other societies include offering working mothers flexi-time, job sharing, subsidised child/day care, both off and on site, and telecommuting. However, in the SME sector, although women account for a significant majority of the workforce. In many cases, they are engaged in low-skill jobs which are difficult to adapt to these measures. For instance, how do you work from home if your position is checking products in a manufacturing facility? And for those that are engaged in part-time, temporary or contracting-out arrangements, their jobs are typically low-income, unstable or unregulated. The Beijing Declaration of 1995 spoke directly to this issue: “Women’s empowerment and their full participation on the basis of equality in all spheres of society, including participation in the decision making process and access to power, are fundamental for the achievement of equality, development and peace.”

Work, family balance
Additionally, research has shown that female workers are more vulnerable to lay-offs, both because they predominate in SME workforces. Unequal treatment of working women has a direct impact on the financial sustainability of homes and communities, which, in turn, leads to greater risk to children. According to the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child (to which T&T is a signatory) “each state has a duty to maximise the survival and healthy development of each boy and girl under its jurisdiction.”
Therefore, there is a government liability to provide incentives that encourage balance and support strategies for working parents in the public and private sector. Even though it benefits our entire society to provide working parents with mechanisms that enable them to balance family and work responsibilities, few firms implement them. It is our understanding that only a handful of firms operate a 9/80 programme, whereby staff work 80 hours in nine days instead of ten, giving each individual every other Friday off work. This facilitates doctor’s appointments, renewal of drivers permits, etc, all of which would traditionally require time off work to complete. While the chamber understands that this may not be a feasible solution for most firms, it is certainly one strategy a company can consider for implementation, if it is practical to do so.

Happy employee, higher profits
In order to convince SME employers to provide solutions for balance, we must talk money. There is considerable data supporting the economic value of providing family/work balance strategies.
A groundbreaking study done by the Sears Corporation in the late 1990s showed unequivocally that satisfied employees have a positive economic impact, as happier staff lead to content customers, which equate to higher profits. Family-friendly companies have consistently been found to outperform those which do not implement balance strategies, with improved returns on stocks, reduced absenteeism and higher levels of staff retention. A 2004 Cornell University study on Child Care and Parent Productivity showed that when making a case for the provision of balance strategies, we must talk in terms of return on investment which can be measured in the following areas:

The benefits of providing support for working mothers clearly outweigh the costs. As a result of their innate flexibility, SMEs are uniquely positioned to be creative and work with employees to find mutually beneficial solutions. It is difficult enough to attract and retain staff as a small firm, but implementation of policies that are empathetic to employee familial responsibilities will position SMEs as ideal employers, whilst making a valuable contribution to nation building. Simply put, that is good business. 



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