Women in Society — Motion to Take Note
6:17 pm

Photo of Baroness Parminter

Baroness Parminter (Liberal Democrat)

I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, for initiating this debate today. As a new girl, I have much to learn from her and from others in this House who have vast experiences and careers across a vast array of areas. Equally, as a new girl, I would like to thank their Lordships for the warmth of their welcome and also the staff for their unfailing courtesy and kindnesses since I took my seat on Monday.

In taking my seat I was proud to take the name of the town where my family and I live. Godalming is a town with a strong sense of community, situated in some of the loveliest countryside in the south-east of England. It has a proud history. It was the birthplace of General James Oglethorpe, the great social reformer who went on to found the American state of Georgia. It was the first town in the world to have a public electricity supply and it was the home of Gertrude Jekyll, the landscape designer, whose gardens still grace so much of our corner of Surrey today. We have a proud past and I hope to be part of an equally proud future for our town.

This debate, which focuses on gender equality, lies at the heart of what it means to have a fair society, the issue that brought me into politics in my early 20s and which has since taken me into a career in the voluntary sector and also local government. It is disappointing that, in some areas of society, women are still regarded as second-class citizens. As someone who studied theology at Oxford, and a practising Christian, I am heartened that at long last women look likely to take their rightful place in our church. Equally bold measures are required in other parts of our society. To that end, I welcome the recent remarks by my honourable friend the Equalities Minister that there will be no roll back on gender equality on our watch.

In that spirit, I shall focus on three areas where discrimination towards women still persists in our society. First, there is discrimination in politics. Men still vastly outnumber women in our democratic bodies. Part of the reason is that women are still the principal carers in many families. However, other equally demanding and high-profile jobs have been performed successfully through securing flexible work patterns. As a trustee of the think tank IPPR, I have been privileged to see at close quarters a successful model of job sharing between the two female outgoing directors, Carey Oppenheim and Lisa Harker. As we have a Government who are rightly taking a radical look at how we do politics, it might be time to look at the issue of MP job shares.

The second area of discrimination against women is in business. Companies are still choosing far more men than women for senior roles. Clearly more flexible work patterns will help, but we should not be fooled into thinking that the glass ceiling is only for women with children. It is vital that the Government keep acting to ensure that boards address this issue seriously. Further, we need to consider the aspirations of women in society. Mentoring can help and I am pleased to be a mentor to a woman in business. I hope that I can encourage her and others to take the steps forward in society that they need to undertake. Beyond government action and mentoring, we also should look to civil society because-as a former chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England your Lordships might expect me to say this-there are some areas of civil society from which business can learn.

A snapshot of ACEVO-the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations-shows that nearly half of its 1,700 members are women. Admittedly they are from smaller voluntary organisations, but those women are taking vital leadership roles in the many organisations which are the backbone of civic life in our communities. I hope it will not be too long before a number of them rise up to join the distinguished women who are leading some of our larger civic organisations, such as Dame Fiona Reynolds at the National Trust.

The third area of discrimination is in pay. The majority of people on low income are women and I therefore welcome the fact that the Budget raised the level at which income tax is to be paid. However, we should be clear that the gap in pay is not only at that level of the pay sector. Recent figures show that the highest paid female director of a FTSE 100 company received almost 10 per cent less than her highest paid male equivalent. Of course the removal of gagging clauses in City contracts may help, but it remains clear that much more needs to be done 40 years on from the adoption of the Equal Pay Act, not only in the issue of equal pay but in the equally important area of flexible working. I welcome the noble Baroness's comments about the coalition Government's intention to extend a historic right for all employees to request flexible working. I look forward to campaigning in this House to ensure that that is introduced as soon as possible.

In addition to speaking out, I hope, as a Member of the House, to play my part in the vital work of outreach to encourage more young women to take up their place in politics. However, I hope I have more success than I did when I accompanied my six year-old daughter to her "take your Mum to school" day recently. Despite the excellent resources from the parliamentary education department, my attempts to persuade her class of the importance of this place in civic society counted for less than whether or not the Queen brought her corgis on her regular visit to our House.

It is a great privilege to speak today and even more of an honour to listen and, it is to be hoped, to learn. In learning over the years I hope that I can play my small part in helping other women to achieve more for themselves, their families, their communities and our country.

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