My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, as this provides some context to a number of points I wish to make later.
The economic emancipation of women is a critical benchmark on which our social progress must be judged, and it is a fact in every society women face barriers in achieving their potential as regards education and employment opportunities. I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, for allowing us to celebrate women’s contribution to the economy; I do agree about flattened hair, so much so that I had to grab on to my hijab to avoid any further hardening. Like the noble Baroness, I, too, salute my good friend and mentor Dame Stephanie Shirley. I have always believed that she is much missed by this House, and I salute her contribution to autism research, which is second to none in this country.
It is a fact that now, in the 21st century, women are entering the workplace in larger numbers than ever before. However, it is also a fact that for the vast majority of women their work experience is one of low and often unequal pay and discrimination. Women often make up the larger proportion of the lowest paid and are grossly underrepresented in senior roles in the workplace.
Women’s economic equality, independence and security is often and tragically hugely reliant on a welfare system that fails to reflect the contribution that women make to our economy and society, where women still make up the vast majority of unpaid carers in our homes, for example. Women’s unpaid labour is estimated to be worth tens of billions of pounds to the economy every year, which is unrecognised. Unpaid carers contribute billions to both economic and social health every year. For these and other reasons, benefits tend to make up a fifth of the average women’s income as opposed to a tenth of men’s, and women are more likely to work in the public sector and use a number of its front-line services. Recent austerity cuts to benefits have ensured that women bear the brunt of the reductions in welfare support.
The Treasury’s own figures show that since 2012, 60% of new jobs for women have come from low-wage industries, compared with 39% of new jobs for men. One in four of all female workers is on low pay. The tragedy here is that the fragile nature of low-wage employment means that women are more likely to end up out of work and subsequently in need of welfare support—a vicious and desperate cycle of disempowerment.
We are into the eighth or ninth year of the worst kind of global financial crisis, impacting all economies and, in particular, low-paid women workers. Added to this, and despite five decades of equality legislation, the gender pay gap remains and is completely unacceptable. We are failing in our obligations to half the population, and our country is unable to utilise the economic influences of women. According to the Women’s Business Council—I was delighted to listen to the noble Baroness, Lady McGregor-Smith, and I welcome her to the House; I very much enjoyed her contribution and look forward to hearing more from her—2.3 million women are not working but want to work, and 1.3 million who are already in employment want to do more hours.
We need to invest in the future of girls and young women to maximise their economic potential in the global market. I commend the Young Foundation, which is based in my local area and whose initiatives support young entrepreneurs. The Women’s Business Council further recommends comprehensive careers advice in schools—something with which I definitely agree.
Recent decades have seen the celebration of BME women entrepreneurs through the formation of network organisations committed to supporting and developing the skills of women. In this context I draw the attention of the House to the work of a small organisation called British Bangladesh Chamber of Women Entrepreneurs. It is a dynamic not-for-profit organisation, supporting businesses of all sizes run by women. I am proud to declare my interest as its patron.
Black Women Mean Business is another organisation set up to unite black women entrepreneurs, providing support through networking. It was set up in 1992 and is still running successfully today. Numerous private sector programmes encourage minority women to go into business, notable among them being NatWest, which supports numerous projects.
I hope that the House will examine the report British Muslims in Numbers, which was undertaken by the Muslim Council of Britain and focuses on the employment of Muslim women. It states that only 29% of women between the ages of 16 and 74 are in employment compared with half of the overall population, and 43% of the 330,000 Muslims in full-time education in a number of local authorities. It also states that Muslim women exceed men in full-time education, but in reality their educational and employment aspiration often is not matched by the opportunities and support that are available to them. Few young Muslims take up apprenticeships.
Forty-seven per cent of British Muslim women were born in this country and do not have language problems. Despite what has been reported, only 6% of Muslims are struggling with English according to the report conducted by the MCB. However, disparities still remain, and a study conducted by Bristol University found that Muslim women were more likely to be unemployed compared with their white female counterparts, despite equality between the groups in terms of being educated to degree level.
Globally, women also tend to be locked out of leadership positions, where gender seems to matter more than ability. Women make up only 5% of the Fortune 500 CEOs and account for only 24% of senior management positions around the world—a point that has already been made. These numbers are fairly consistent across Asia, Europe, Latin America, North America and the Gulf countries. Clearly, the global economy is not using its productive resources effectively. It is tossing away economic growth at a time when it cannot afford such wanton waste. This needs to change. Excluding women simply makes no sense in terms of a country’s economy. All that is required is to change economic policy, change laws and institutions, and of course change attitudes and culture. I accept that government cannot change everything and that we need to work together. I also accept that there are limits. However, the solution lies in our grasp for an inclusive society. I hope that we can collectively root out the barriers in the UK that prevent women being recognised as our social capital and open wide the door of opportunity, adding potentially billions to the Treasury.