International Women's Day — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:26 pm on 1st March 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Kramer Baroness Kramer Liberal Democrat 2:26 pm, 1st March 2012

My Lords, I have loved every minute of this debate and learnt so much across a wide range of issues that affect women in our society. Like all in this House, though, I have not agreed with everything. There were some comments about women on boards that particularly troubled me, and I shall address them briefly.

My noble friend Lady Bottomley suggested that a lot of work has gone on to get women on to boards, and now it is time to switch the energy and start looking at women in executive roles. Of course it is important to have women in executive roles, but so often when we start to make progress we stop way before we have won the prize, and I would be sad to see that happen here. It is perhaps the strongest promotion of women in executive roles to see those women sitting in non-executive slots, which then prompts the question of why they are not also filling the CEO's seat and the other executive seats around the table.

The benefit that women are bringing to boards is real diversity and challenge. That challenge is partly because women are coming from non-traditional backgrounds, and in this House we see the benefit that comes when you get that challenge. If you want to see the effect of cosy consensus in the boardroom, you have only to look at the recent banking crisis to see what happens when challenge is absent.

I was rather more concerned by the comments from both my noble friend Lady Bottomley and the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Abersoch, on quotas. I give huge credit to the noble Lord for the work that he has done in changing the whole atmosphere of women's appointments to boards in the UK, particularly to FTSE 100 companies, but I suggest that his powers of advocacy, persuasion and PR have been very much helped because companies have known that the threat of quotas sits in the back pocket and that, if change does not take place, politicians have seemed willing and inclined to carry out that threat.

I myself am in effect a beneficiary of something like quotas. I got my first banking job because I was a woman. I regard that as no shame: you get the job and then you prove yourself. However, I lived for years with that banking institution saying to me on so many occasions, "Isn't it amazing that just when there were legal pressures forcing us to take women, capable women like you came forward?". That is such a deeply embedded attitude that we should not be afraid to use the mechanisms that conventional wisdom says are in some way shameful or unacceptable or demean women. They do not demean women; we prove ourselves when we have opportunities.

The issue that I want very briefly to address is the role of women with small businesses. It is a rather troubling area, which does not get a great deal of attention, although the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, addressed it and it was certainly mentioned on the Floor today. Around 15 per cent of businesses in this country are women-owned and managed. The equivalent in the United States is roughly 30 per cent. Small businesses are defined rather differently there so the figure is probably higher than that. That troubles me hugely because there is no cultural difference that explains that difference in performance. Enterprising Women has done some very useful work and its survey suggests that women who start businesses find themselves locked in at the start-up level. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, suggested that finance was a problem.

However, with that differential, I suspect that the problem is bigger than that. The Government have tried to put in place support and advisory programmes. There are certainly very effective routes such as Women in Business, but we are not getting to the bottom of this. Enterprising Women proposed in its work that if the full potential of just the women-owned businesses in place today was released, we would create more jobs than the Government's whole regional growth programme. It is an absolutely crucial area and something that we have to get to the bottom of quickly.

It is interesting to look at this issue from an international perspective. The World Economic Forum's 2011 report on the global gender gap found in its surveys that the biggest barriers to women's access to leadership positions-which wraps in this and many other issues-are the general norms and practices in their country, masculine or patriarchal corporate culture and a lack of role models. It struck me that they apply as much here as they do anywhere in the developing world, to which we so often look with all these suggestions of how women can make a difference. We have to start taking some of that on board.

I believe that it ties back to the issue of women on boards. If we have those role models in place, we start to change the culture. The need for growth means that we need new women-run small businesses and the jobs that come from them. It seems to me that the whole change loops together in a fairly complex but significant package. I hope that we in this House and the other place can begin to make a real difference on these issues.