Women: Businesses — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:43 pm on 21st January 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Wheatcroft Baroness Wheatcroft Conservative 3:43 pm, 21st January 2016

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to introduce this timely debate, for it is a chance to celebrate—to celebrate the huge success both of the country and of individuals.

Women have come a long way in a short time. Let us not forget that it was only in 1928 that women gained equal voting rights with men, but it is less than 100 years ago that the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act enabled the first women to become barristers and solicitors and only in 1997 that a woman became chief executive of a FTSE 100 company. Such was the amazed reaction to Marjorie Scardino getting the top job at Pearson that many appear to regard the event as akin to Dr Johnson’s response to a woman being a preacher:

“a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all”.

Well, to find women succeeding in business is no longer any surprise. There are many examples of that success in this Chamber, and I am delighted that we will be hearing from so many of them today, and that the Minister who is to respond had herself a highly successful career in business before turning her hand to politics.

In particular, I am delighted that we will be listening to two maiden speeches, both from women who are making a serious contribution to the business world. My noble friend Lady Rock is a director of a FTSE 250 company, and my noble friend Lady McGregor-Smith, runs the mighty Mitie company and chairs the Women’s Business Council, which aims massively to increase the contribution of women to the economy. I have no doubt that they will both have some very interesting things to say.

For too long, women were a wasted resource in the economy. There is now a clear understanding that we cannot afford to squander the talent of half the population. If we could equalise women’s productivity and employment with that of men, it could add £600 billion to the economy. I applaud the moves that the Government are making to encourage this change: the right to request flexible working, shared parental leave, and now 30 hours of free childcare for the parents of three and four year-olds.

But it takes time to change attitudes. When I was a working mother, I was somewhat taken aback at a school parents evening to be shown the work of the eldest son, who was then aged five. “My daddy is tall and thin. He is a publisher”, he had written. That was largely accurate, if perhaps slightly flattering on the size front, but never the less he was indeed a publisher. He went on, “My mummy is short and fat. She is a typist”. It was true because I was pregnant and I typed, but I did so as a journalist on the business pages of a national newspaper. Prejudices are formed early and they can be absorbed from seemingly innocent sources such as children’s books.

The remarkable Dame Stephanie Shirley built a fantastic business in the tech field. At the time she started it, in the 1960s, a married woman needed her husband’s permission to open a bank account. So she decided to work as Steve rather than Stephanie, because she was sure that someone with a man’s name would have a better chance of persuading customers to join the business than a woman would. She built the business up to be worth hundreds of millions of pounds, making 70 of her staff, largely women, millionaires in the process. She has since become one of our leading philanthropists. Her experience, however, led her to remark that, “You can always tell ambitious women by the shape of our heads. They’re flat on top from being patted patronisingly”.

Things have improved since then. Led by the dynamic and determined noble Lord, Lord Davies of Abersoch, the drive to get more women on to corporate boards has been very successful. In 2011, just 12.5% of FTSE 100 directors were women. Last year that proportion overtook the 25% mark. Now the drive is to increase the number of women directors among the FTSE 350 companies. Astonishingly, in 2011 there were 152 all-male boards in the 350 index. In four years, that number has been cut by 90% and the Government target now is to bolster the proportion of women on those boards to a third.

I was so relieved that the noble Lord, Lord Davies, and the Government set targets and not quotas. I do not believe that quotas would have been for the long-term benefit of the country or of women. It would inevitably have led to women being put on boards because of their gender and not their ability. Promoting token women is not to anyone’s benefit. What boards need is a diversity of experience, skills, talent and outlook.

I believe that women are as diverse as men. I hope that I will not be seen as being disloyal to the sisterhood if I say that, just as women can be thoughtful, caring, kind and ambitious, so can men, but not all women are paragons. Some can be as scheming, ruthless and mean as any man. Both men and women can fall victim to the groupthink that is so damaging to a business. Various studies purport to show that having women on the board has a positive effect on performance. That may be, but might the positive factor be having a board that is not so blinkered, old-fashioned and prejudiced as to close its doors to anyone who does not fit the stereotypical male, pale director image? Diversity is what is required.

I should probably take this opportunity to say that I currently sit on two company boards, one of which is a FTSE 100 company and is, I am delighted to say, chaired by a woman. My experience of being on boards is that generalisations are dangerous. Getting the right mix of people is what is important, irrespective of gender, so it makes sense to choose from the biggest possible talent pool. That means looking at men and women and, equally important, looking at people from diverse backgrounds and, in this global business world, diverse countries.

Although we are making progress at board level, it is among non-executive directors rather than executives that the biggest changes have come. When it comes to executives, we now have six female chief executives of FTSE 100 companies, but the ratio of male to female senior execs is pitiful. I think it is more likely that a man called John will be a senior or chief exec than a woman of any name.

Is this because of a glass ceiling, or is it because many able women choose not to take on those roles? Here, we should not—cannot—ignore the realities of family life. The issue of childcare and, increasingly, the need to look after older parents, undoubtedly impacts on careers. It is true that families are moving towards more shared care between parents, but it still tends to be the mother who carries the bulk of domestic responsibilities.

There is more that companies could do to make it easier for people to balance work and life. For all the talk of flexible working—some companies pay much more than lip-service to it—we still have a long-hours culture in this country and presenteeism is rife. It is interesting to note that this does not in any way equate to world-beating productivity—on the contrary.

One thing I find remarkable is that for many executives, a huge amount of travelling seems to be required. Why should this be the case in an age when videoconferencing is highly sophisticated and Skype is readily available?

It may be that people still believe that it is imperative to do business face-to-face and, on some occasions, it certainly is, but if companies could make better use of technology instead of business class seats and comfortable hotels, more mothers might be encouraged to take on senior executive roles.

I have to say that, in my career, I have never felt discriminated against for being a woman. Indeed, I often found it something of an advantage. As a journalist, when I was younger, older captains of industry seemed quite responsive to being interviewed by a younger woman. Later on, I suspect that younger captains of industry felt comfortable talking to someone who reminded them of their mother.

However, it saddens me to admit that women are still discriminated against when it comes to the matter of pay. There are explanations for why there should be the apparent gender pay gap, but it is so glaring, so consistent, that it is hard to avoid concluding that there is an element of discrimination at work. It would be charitable to think that it was always unintentional. Fifty years ago, it was still largely taken for granted that women would be paid less than men. But the Equal Pay Act came into force in 1970, so it is remarkable that the gap between average earnings of men and women remains so wide—a staggering 19.2% in this country, which is nearly 3% higher than the average for Europe.

Work by the Fawcett Society shows an even bigger gap at the top: the highest-earning 2% of men earn an average of £117,352 while the average for the highest-earning 2% of women is just £75,745—an extraordinary gap of 55%. Now, of course, there are factors to explain the gap, not least the fact that women are slow to climb into those top jobs that pay more. The good news is that among younger people—those under 40—the gap has been narrowed almost into non-existence. But the evidence points firmly towards the fact that older women are not being paid what they deserve.

The Government have pledged to close the gap within a generation and last year announced plans to force companies to publish the figures showing their pay by gender, including bonuses. It is important to keep the bonuses in there because of the belief that men get bigger bonuses than women, either because they demand them or because those handing out the bonuses just think they are more deserving. The figures point to there being some truth in that.

The hope is that, by forcing companies to publish their numbers, it will encourage them to examine their pay structures more carefully. It might, but I suspect that, unless they are forced into disclosing pay by tiers rather than just overall, they will cling to the belief that they are being asked to compare apples and pears. I hope that the Minister today may be able to give us some thoughts on how real change is to be brought about on this front.

Getting more women into top jobs is clearly part of the solution, but it may not be enough. The actress Sienna Miller is clearly at the top of her profession. When she learnt that a film offer made to her would pay her significantly less than her male co-star, she walked away. That option is not available to many women.

However, I do not want to finish on a down-beat note. As I have said, the increased proportion of women in the economy is a cause for celebration. We have girls being enthused about business at school, more women setting up their own businesses than ever before and women running some of our biggest companies. We have a woman chairing the Institute of Directors and a woman directing the CBI. We are not a monstrous regiment, but we are a formidable force. I beg to move.