I am most grateful to my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft for initiating this debate and I, too, very much look forward to the maiden speeches of my noble friends Lady Rock and Lady McGregor-Smith, both of whom come to this House with considerable business experience and expertise.
Noble Lords may be aware that I spend a lot of time banging on about women’s equality in Parliament. As a result of the work I have done in this space, I have been lucky enough to meet and talk to many successful businesswomen and female entrepreneurs who support this. Due to efforts by women themselves, the introduction of voluntary targets, as the noble Baroness said, and government support, progress continues to be made in all areas to increase women’s representation in the workplace. The news that 69% of women aged between 16 and 64 are now in employment, the highest number since records began in 1971, is to be welcomed. Here in Parliament, women now make up a record 29% of the House of Commons—not good enough, obviously—and 26% of the Lords.
In the business world, however, the UK still languishes in the bottom 10 of the league table of senior management roles around the world, with women in the UK holding only 19% of these positions. Interestingly, the number one spot is occupied by China, with 51% of senior management positions held by women. I have not studied the correlation but I would be surprised if the success of women in business there is not a significant factor in powering China’s economic success.
A study by the McKinsey Global Institute has analysed gender equality in 95 countries around the world, and estimated that closing the gender gap in the workplace would increase annual GDP by between $12 trillion and $28 trillion in 2025, depending on how quickly change could be implemented. That is a very big number, equivalent to the economies of China and the US combined. We could create economic value equivalent to two world superpowers in less than 10 years if women’s participation in the workplace were equal to men’s across 95 countries. The opportunities are mind-boggling.
Some noble Lords will be aware that I speak regularly in debates about international development, encouraging the Government to do even more to empower women in developing countries and making the economic case for doing so. I am delighted that Justine Greening has just been appointed to the UN’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, designed to put the issue on the global agenda, and I am sure we all wish her and the panel every success. However, I am struck that we seldom focus to the same extent here at home, where we are still far from reaching our full potential.
It is great news that proportionally more women than men are now involved in business start-ups. In 2014, the proportion of working-age people involved in early-stage entrepreneurial activity was 11%. By gender, the entrepreneurial activity in the UK was 14% among women and 8% among men. From listening to many women who have been involved in starting their own businesses, I know that flexibility in working hours is often a key to balancing work and family life. I personally identify with that, as in 2007 I set up my own business with a partner. That business continues to thrive today and employs 19 people, although I do not think I would be in this Chamber today if I had stuck with the business rather than focusing on other areas of women’s empowerment.
I recently asked a number of successful women entrepreneur friends what they thought should be done to support more women to maximise their potential in the workplace. In their view, women tend to nurture their business growth, are financially prudent, and seldom look for a quick exit but focus more on developing a sustainable business. People management and team development skills are paramount, as start-ups are highly dependent on a few scarce people. They told me that it is lonely if they start on their own. An inclusive style, working as a team together with natural mentoring and coaching skills, are strengths often found in women. Of course, that is not to say that successful male entrepreneurs do not display some or all of the same characteristics, but entrepreneurship should be encouraged as an area of growth for women in the economy. The recent paper from the Centre for Entrepreneurs, Shattering Stereotypes: Women in Entrepreneurship, is well worth a read for further insight.
More entrepreneurial education, support and encouragement are needed for the next generation of female entrepreneurs—interestingly, they do not like to be called entrepreneurs but want to be called business founders; the word somehow turns them off—with the establishment of high-quality mentoring schemes and networks. I welcome the Government’s work in that space, including the new mentoring campaign to be led by Christine Hodgson, chair of Capgemini UK and the Careers & Enterprise Company, but is the Minister confident that all those various initiatives are promoted widely enough? Preparing for the debate made me aware of how much support was available, but I am not convinced that it is easy to find. Might all that activity benefit from being joined up under a single strategy, leading to an entrepreneurial revolution in our schools, further education colleges, universities and beyond? That kind of bold initiative could lead to a considerable economic prize to ensure that the UK continues to be one of the fastest-growing global economies for the next decade and beyond.