Women: Businesses — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:38 pm on 21st January 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills 5:38 pm, 21st January 2016

I thank my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft for securing this debate and for kicking it off so persuasively and amusingly. It is a pleasure to have listened today to so many excellent points and examples of good practice, and to speak on such an important topic.

First, I welcome my noble friends Lady McGregor-Smith and Lady Rock, who made their excellent, interesting and very personal maiden speeches. They will contribute strongly to our deliberations over the coming years and it is a real delight to have them on our Benches. As others have done, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady McGregor-Smith, on her work on the Women’s Business Council. I was also glad to hear about the brilliant mentoring of my noble friend Lady Noakes, who helped me to cope with the terrors of the Dispatch Box. She is very strict, for example, about getting titles right for noble Lords and noble Baronesses, which I always struggle with. My noble friend Lady Rock—the lady of imagination, as my noble friend Lord Borwick has christened her—joined other noble Lords in saying that the answer to success in this area is not to impose quotas but to open up the huge potential of women’s future economic contribution.

It might be helpful for a moment if I take a broad view, because like my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft, I love history. I am very conscious that 150 years ago, women were excluded from large parts of economic life as well as suffering other legal disadvantages. The transformation since then, for all sorts of reasons, has been amazing. Although it is always right to concentrate on the task in hand, sometimes we need to look back and remind ourselves what has been achieved.

Women did not start to enter the workplace uniformly across all sectors. They probably first entered new areas of work where they thought they were more likely to be treated fairly. Indeed, that was one of the reasons why, when I left university as recently as the early 1970s, I joined the Civil Service. In particular, there were for a long time relatively few women in the business sector—at any rate at the top level to which I aspired.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Lane-Fox and Lady Uddin, and others said that Steve Shirley—as I will always call her—was an inspiration to many people. That includes me. She gave me my early interest in ICT after I heard her at a management course. I have dealt with technology in almost every job that I have done in a long career in government, retail, media, consultancy and politics, and I very much agree with the importance of technology to today’s debate. We need more women entrepreneurs in the tech sector. I had a round table today on an aspect of the digital single market and was delighted to see a good turnout of senior women.

I also feel that technology is a great enabler. I know how my life changed as a senior executive when I had access to top-quality IT including phones, tablets, computers, videoconferencing and other equipment, and I believe that, as my noble friend Lord Borwick said, it helps to reduce discrimination. It helped me to get on and to juggle my domestic duties with my work duties, although a supportive partner is also incredibly helpful and important. It was good to hear from my noble friend Lord Lansley, who is clearly an example of this species.

The situation is now changing rapidly, and for the better, which must be to the advantage of UK plc. Overall, there are now 14.6 million women in work—more than ever before. This is an increase of nearly 1 million since May 2010, and 200,000 higher than a year ago. In part, this reflects developments such as parental leave, flexible working and state help for parents with the cost of childcare and the sort of provisions we have in the Childcare Bill. I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, as there have been improvements, although we can always do better.

I am a glass-half-full person. It is encouraging that the gender pay gap, though far too high, as many noble Lords have said today, is at its lowest on record, at 19.2%, and is virtually eliminated among full-time workers under 40. We are already working with businesses to make sure that all large employers publish gender pay gap information, including bonuses. Indeed, we grasped this issue in this House during the passage of BIS legislation, which the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and I worked on last year. I believe—this is a personal reflection—that some of the differences may reflect the fact that, in my experience of female executives who used to work for me, they are less prone to demand pay rises than their male counterparts. This is worth reflecting upon.

Of course, everything starts with education, and here success has been startling. Girls’ achievements surpass those of boys at almost every level. I agree about the buzz and enthusiasm of girls when one encounters them while visiting schools. But I also noted recent comments from an authoritative female source—the head of UCAS, Mary Curnock Cook—that helping boys should now be the priority, because there are difficulties there as well.

This bodes well for the longer term success of women in all areas of work. Nevertheless, it is still important to seek to raise the aspirations of girls so that they all have a chance to fulfil their potential, and to ensure that success in school and at university is reflected in the workplace.

Encouraging a modern workplace is one reason why the Government have made a commitment to reach a figure of 3 million new apprenticeships in England between 2015 and 2020. Unlike most countries, women are well represented within English apprenticeships. Last year, 233,000 women, or 53%, started an apprenticeship.

Women entrepreneurs—business founders, as my noble friend Lady Jenkin rightly described them—are important in opening up the kind of opportunities that we seek in today’s debate. As my noble friend Lord Lansley said, we need to take advantage of the generational shift. Around 1 million of all SMEs in the UK—more than 20%—were majority-women led in 2014, which was an increase of 170,000 from 2010. In 2015, the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Institute ranked the UK as the best country in Europe and third best in the world for female entrepreneurs. More mundanely, I was delighted to discover recently that, at the British Library intellectual property centre, 58% of users were women. I felt that that was helpful and important for the pipeline.

My noble friend Lady Mobarik said that diversity was very important to successful entrepreneurship and in successful companies. The noble Baronesses, Lady Falkner of Margravine and Lady Uddin, added fascinating insights into the contribution of ethnic and Muslim women. I assure them that we are doing more to encourage diversity on boards and, indeed, in the public sector. That includes a review by Sir John Parker into BME on boards, working towards having no monocultural FTSE boards at all by 2020.

Finally, I want to talk about one of my own ministerial responsibilities, women on boards. Here, we have benefited, as many have said, from a successful voluntary initiative supported by government and led by the noble Lord, Lord Davies—not only noble but determined and dynamic—who has done a great job. On his watch, female representation on FTSE 100 boards has expanded greatly. There are now no all-male boards in the FTSE 100, and only 16 in the FTSE 250. This was frankly unimaginable not long ago.

We now need to focus on the talent pipeline of capable women, executives and emerging NEDs, to ensure we continue the good work. I hope soon to announce a new chair to lead an independent review, following on from Lord Davies’s work. In addition to maintaining the momentum on FTSE boards, the review will focus on improving representation of women in the executive layer of the FTSE 350.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Rebuck, said, this is critical. The Government have tried to do more in the public sector. In the previous Parliament, we set an aspiration that 50% of new public appointments should be women by 2015. We are all trying hard to achieve that in the public appointments we make. It was ambitious, but it was right to be ambitious, and we are making real progress: 44% of all recent new public appointments where the gender is known went to women. For many years, that figure was stuck between 32% and 36%. In my department, BIS, the executive board and the BIS board are 44% women. That is a long way of saying that it is important to lead from the front. I have always felt that everywhere I have worked.

The excellent suggestions that have been made today can and should play a part. Noble Lords spoke about mentoring, which I found very useful both ways, and about the need for more women and more work in tech and FinTech. We talked about building on success where it exists, as in publishing, and on the recent initiatives on STEM, which are wide-ranging and good. I also believe in using academia as a pipeline for business appointments on boards. It can be a good way of broadening diversity in the corporate world.

I should briefly comment on sport because that was mentioned by my noble friends Lady Brady and Lord Taylor. It is very important. There is a slightly disturbing statistic—again, this is a personal comment. It is that 40% of CEOs in the US played university-level sport. So involving women in sport, sports management and government, as the Government are trying to do by encouraging good practice in our new sport strategy, can be helpful.

My ever-challenging noble friend Lady Jenkin and my noble friend Lady Brady asked whether we should do more and how we can make sure that the great initiatives we have heard about in this debate are more widely understood and expanded—so that we get a mushroom cloud effect to share best practice. We have a joined-up approach in government. The Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan, and the Government Equalities Office try to draw together all that we are doing and go beyond party to bring together the effort on women, but of course we can do more and we will be looking carefully at all the suggestions made in this debate, including those of the noble Baroness, Lady Burt. I shall not comment in detail on all the specific points, but I think we all agree on the potential for bringing in extra ideas and moving forward, as I have sought to show.

Both male and female talent grace this Chamber and, indeed, nearly everywhere else where human endeavour is displayed. It is a delight to work with so many women on both sides of our House and to find such a relatively strong representation of women with a business background, which is strengthened by new talent today. We must all work to ensure that women continue to play an increasing role in UK business and in our growing economy.