I am delighted to speak in this important debate and to follow the very powerful speech from Lyn Brown, who can count on my support for her campaign.
The UN’s theme for International Women’s Day this year is
“Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030” and the global theme is “Be bold for change”, but 2030 is only 13 years away, and there is still much to be done. The Prime Minister has called the gender pay gap—the difference in earning power between men and women—a “burning injustice”. I could not agree more.
We still have some way to go in the changing world of work in the UK. British women still have 71% of the economic opportunity that men have. Yes, there are other countries that are doing much worse, but the UK should be a leader in this area. Sadly, we are not.
UN sustainable development goal 5 describes gender equality as a world issue. It is a sad statistic that between 1995 and 2015, global female labour force participation decreased from 52% to 49%. Only 69% of women are employed in the UK, compared with 78% of men. The global gender pay gap is 25.5%, but the UK gender pay gap is 19.2%. That is not something to be proud of. We cannot lecture other countries around the world that we have it better. If the current trends continue, it will take 70 years to close the global gender wage gap, but the Government have vowed to reduce it within a generation.
If we are going to be bold for change, we will have to look very hard at where we can make a difference. One way to address that is by looking at older women in the workplace. I want to focus on women returning to work, particularly older women. One of the findings from the gender pay gap inquiry by the Women and Equalities Committee, on which I serve, was that women who have been out of the workplace for more than six months find it difficult to get back into employment. The longer they are out of work, the harder it is.
I set up the all-party group on women and work with Jess Phillips to look at the barriers to work. Our group has proved to be incredibly popular—we have standing room only at most of our meetings. There is still a definite need—I wish it were not so—to help women in the workplace. Our first all-party group inquiry was about women returning to work. We published our report in January, and it seems to have struck a chord with employers and women up and down the country.
There are some very good examples of companies that are already doing it, but we need to do much more to get people on board and to see the wisdom of tapping into the life experience and work-related experience of older women employees who are keen to get back into work. In my views, companies that cannot see the potential are missing a big trick. To put it quite simply, there is a huge pool of talent out there.
People take time out of the workplace for all sorts of reasons. The biggest reason is caring responsibilities, whether for children or for elderly relatives. Some people, including me, took time out because we think that parenting is the most important job in the world and we wanted to take responsibility for bringing up the next generation—there is absolutely nothing wrong with that view. For others, childcare costs are an enormous barrier for women who want to return to work. Having 30 hours of free childcare will help, but I fear that too many men and women are not taking time out to look after their children because they are worried about getting back into work. Taking time out of the workplace is a huge financial commitment, but more would be prepared to make that choice if they knew that they would not struggle to get back into work at a later date. Families would be in a better place to budget, too.
The more social investment and measures that Governments can put in place to balance work and family commitments for both men and women and to recognise the importance of looking after children, the better. I am pleased that the Government have recognised many of those points in their policies, but we need to take it further. For instance, our group’s report found that few people were taking up shared parental leave—just 1% of men are taking it up. It is considered complicated and unwieldy.
There is little recognition of the work that women—it is predominantly women—do when they are at home. We have to stop this idea that just because someone has taken time out of the workplace, they are any less capable. My heart sinks when people dismiss mothers or fathers who are staying at home; what is more important than bringing up the next generation? It should be treated as equally important as going back to work.
Many women who have been out of the workplace for some time have lost confidence and do not know how to start, but several organisations are addressing this. We are incredibly grateful for people such as Julianne Miles, the co-founder of Women Returners, who contributed to our report. Companies need to be flexible in their approach and in their conditions. They must not see a gap in CVs as a barrier and show a reluctance to employ someone. Employing older women and men is a huge economic opportunity, especially if we are going to live until we are 90, as the predictions are for South Korea. I challenge all companies: be bold for change and lead the way.