Women: Businesses — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:03 pm on 21st January 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Rebuck Baroness Rebuck Labour 4:03 pm, 21st January 2016

My Lords, I am indebted to the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, for introducing this debate on women’s contribution to business and economic growth, not least because it gives a context for two much-anticipated maiden speeches, from my noble friend Lady Rock—I am pleased to say that she began her career in book publishing—and the noble Baroness, Lady McGregor-Smith, who has done such amazing work as chair of the Women’s Business Council, is an important role model for young women, and is a long-serving CEO.

I have been a woman in business since I entered the workforce in the mid-1970s, launching a publishing start-up in 1982 and becoming CEO of one of the largest publishing groups in the UK in 1991—a position I held for 22 years until I became chair.

I join the noble Baronesses, Lady Wheatcroft and Lady Jenkin, in applauding women’s achievements, with 69% of women in work—the highest number since I joined the workforce, but still behind 79% of men. I have seen women’s attitudes and aspirations towards fulfilling work transform with each generation and I enjoy my millennial daughters’ utter intolerance of many of the compromises that I have made in my life. For them, the notion of equalising women’s productivity and employment to men’s is a real possibility—potentially adding, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, told us, some £600 billion to our economy. But it would depend on a different culture in organisations and, at home, a truly shared responsibility for child-rearing.

But as well as our successes, we also have to acknowledge that there is much more to achieve. There are currently 2.4 million women who want to work but cannot and 1.5 million who are failing to increase their working hours. In the 21st century is it not shocking, as we have heard and will clearly agree on, that in the UK we have a gender pay gap of 19.2%, which is well above the European average? Why is it that 42% of women who work part-time—often involuntarily, many on zero-hours contracts—are three times more likely than men to earn far less than a living wage? These depressing statistics do not fit with the fact that around half of our young women hold a university degree, with significant numbers achieving first-class honours. Why is it that so many are in low or middle-skilled jobs, well below their qualifications? Depressingly, for these women, little has changed since the 1970s.

Going right back to school, girls outperform boys, but very few are on a pathway towards high-growth STEM subjects, where many high-profile jobs would await them. The CBI reports that girls suffer from pigeonholing in their careers and that 93% of all young people are not getting the careers advice that they deserve. So I suggest that we need to improve career preparation for women, whether in the humanities or STEM subjects, even as early as primary school, because by the time women are exposed to inspiring role models—if they ever are at all—they tend to have already decided on their exam choices and their ambitions are potentially curtailed.

When I speak to girls’ schools I encounter such enthusiasm and curiosity, but I often feel like I am a visitor from Mars. There is little continuity, training or consistent role models for the majority of the 3.7 million young women who are not being prepared to aspire to a career and fulfil their potential in the workforce.

I hope that Christine Hodgson’s new independent careers advice company will address these gender issues specifically.

At the same time, millennials—women between the ages of 18 and 34—are more likely to want self-determination and to start their own businesses rather than follow a regimented career. A third of start-ups in Britain are by women aged under 35; 37% of them self-fund and operate their business from home, covering service sectors, probably with limited upsides. They do not tend to move into the tech and science environments that men monopolise—a fact championed by my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox. I look forward to hearing her views on this. Women are also less likely to seek VC funding than the majority of start-ups by men. Could it be because generally, and not always through choice, they take on the family responsibilities and therefore fear debt and failure more acutely?

Similar dynamics operate in the traditional workforce, where 75% of CEOs and 69% of full-time managers are men. This has pretty much been the case all my working life, as I witness women’s career trajectories change once they become mothers, with one-third of managers going on a downward trajectory. It is also at this point—as we have heard, when they are roughly in their 40s—that women’s pay begins to deviate from men’s in what has been called the “motherhood penalty”.

The argument has been made time and time again that if you add 10% of gender diversity at the top of companies, you add a potential 3.5% EBIT increase, yet the number of senior women leaders remains stubbornly low. There are only 8.6% women executive directors on our top companies’ boards. There are 26% women non-executive directors on our top boards—a great achievement of my noble friend Lord Davies and others—but we now need radical action on women’s executive careers. Is it a question of unconscious bias in companies and benevolent stereotyping? Or, as Sheryl Sandberg argues, are women failing to “lean in”? Perhaps the Government themselves, a big national employer, could set targets for their executive women’s pipeline? I certainly find increased anxiety in the brilliant young career women I mentor, especially when they start a family, as if they have subscribed to some ideal notion of perfect motherhood, blended with perfect work performance—both impossible goals.

Millennial women, for the most part, take a different attitude from my generation. They reject the compromise of working motherhood where all the responsibility rests with women and demand a more equal approach with a partner and much more time flexibility from the companies they work for. Work/life balance is firmly on their agenda. I was lucky enough to be able to afford childcare when I had children, but today the cost of nursery provision is up 33% since 2010, well ahead of any salary inflation. And, unfortunately for anyone working in today’s 24/7 environment, how adjusted is childcare provision generally to the majority of working families or, indeed, lone parents, 93% of whom are women working outside the nine to six, nine to five—or whatever—norm?

If women are going to make their full contribution to the workforce, we need a different culture of shared parental responsibility and universal, affordable and flexible childcare. We need to stop demonising working mothers or colluding in setting up impossible ideals. We need trust and flexibility within companies to allow women—and men—to juggle their lives, and we need finite measures to increase aspiration in schools and universities, followed by focused training and sponsorship in executive pipelines for women. Mentorship and active sponsorship of women in all companies are essential.

These issues are many and complex and, yes, I think it is right that we applaud the contribution of women to business and their current and future potential impact on the growth of our economy, but let us also be aware of the warning signs of lack of progress and stagnation and of unequal access to opportunity, and honestly debate any barriers—practical, psychological and cultural—to women’s full contribution to our future.