I congratulate my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft on securing this debate, and particularly the way it has been framed. We are finally talking about the contribution that women can and do make to growth and economic prosperity, instead of being trapped in a debate on equality for equality’s sake. There are reasons why we need to empower women in the workplace and they are for the benefit not just of women but of the whole country. Our businesses can do better, innovate more and grow faster if we leverage the talent of the whole country.
Today I want to focus my remarks on opportunity—opportunities for women in business and opportunities for our economic growth as a country, now and in the future. The opportunities for women are simple. They are the same as the opportunities for anyone building a career in business—an access-all-areas pass to any skill set, any profession and any industry, and, in those areas, the chance to go as high as anyone wants to go, from middle management to senior leadership to FTSE 100 CEO. On that note, I pay tribute to and welcome my noble friend Lady McGregor-Smith to this House. Her success in business, as well as her work at the Women’s Business Council, is an inspiration to us all.
How do we unlock these opportunities? Our generation is more fortunate than previous ones in that we at least can point to equality before the law. We therefore need to make sure that, first, we empower women with the skills they need to get on in whatever career they choose and, secondly, change culture and attitudes where we need to so that women with the right skills get to the top and do not get sidelined by gender issues.
Take my own industry, football. In 1993, when records began, just 10,000 women and girls played in affiliated league and cup competitions. That number is now 147,000, which is of course progress, but we still have a long way to go. It will not surprise many in this House that there are no female managers in the professional ranks of men’s football. But it may surprise noble Lords that just eight of the 24 teams at the recent Women’s World Cup were managed by women, and in global professional women’s football women manage just 7% of teams. If we can encourage more girls into the sport, this may yet filter through into management and leadership roles as well, and I commend the FA’s targeted outreach programme to recruit more female players and coaches.
Some of the remaining barriers are cultural. Noble Lords may have seen the “This Girl Can” campaign—a celebration of women in sport, designed to challenge the idea that certain activities are not for girls. There is a football example of a woman doing keepy-uppy, with the caption, “I also know the offside rule”. I commend such initiatives for helping to show that no part of our society or economy should be closed to half the population. There are lessons here for the wider business community.
Culturally, perhaps the most important thing we need to do is address flexible working and raising a family, as many speakers have said, and end the stereotypes that may still exist in this area. I am pleased, therefore, that the Government have introduced the right to request flexible working as well as shared parental leave. It is important that this is seen as an opportunity for men as much as for women. I think Sheryl Sandberg said it best when she said:
“I look forward to the day when half our homes are run by men and half our companies and institutions are run by women. When that happens, it won’t just mean happier women and families; it will mean more successful businesses and better lives for us all”.
Of course, for men and women, raising a family does not mean being less committed to building a career.
Then we have to consider the gender pay gap and continue to get more women into senior leadership positions—and pay them. The gender pay gap is the lowest it has ever been but it still exists. We now have no all-male FTSE 100 boards but we still need more female representation. This is the opportunity for women. Of profound importance is the opportunity for our economy, competiveness and growth prospects if we can empower more women in business and unlock the talents of British people. The Women’s Business Council has calculated that if we equalise women’s employment to that of men by 2030, we can add at least 10% to GDP. Closing the pay gap does not benefit just women, it benefits the whole economy. Until women earn the same as men, the economy will continue to lose money, currently around £40 billion a year. As the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, has said,
“gender equality doesn’t require trade-offs; it only has benefits. And the benefits accrue to everyone”.
We have heard today of the outstanding contributions that women are making to the UK economy, and their potential to do more. Women deserve these opportunities but, more importantly, Britain deserves them. In a fiercely competitive global economy, we need to lever every advantage we can to stay ahead. We still have a lot to do but Britain is ahead of many other countries in maximising women’s economic footprint. Let us lock in that first-mover advantage and reap the benefits it can bring for our girls, our women and our country as a whole.