Women: Businesses — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:55 pm on 21st January 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Rock Baroness Rock Conservative 4:55 pm, 21st January 2016

(Maiden Speech) My Lords, it is a great honour to stand in this place to speak for the first time on a topic close to my heart and reflective of my own personal journey. It is humbling indeed. I do so in the warm and generous welcome that I have received from the doorkeepers, clerks and staff along with noble Lords on all sides of the House. I would like to thank them for their kind support, advice, guidance and help. I would also like to thank my noble friends Lord Feldman of Elstree and Lord Fellowes of West Stafford, who so graciously supported me at my introduction.

I am emboldened to speak in this debate by the legacy of entrepreneurship and female enterprise in my own family. My great-great-great-great grandfather was John Scott, First Earl of Eldon, who served as Lord Chancellor for over 20 years. While he made his name devising the parliamentary procedures to address the temporary incapacitation of King George III, he was also well known because his wife-to-be, Bessie Surtees, defied the wishes of her father and climbed out of a first floor window to elope with him to Scotland—surely an early example of female enterprise.

In 1837, Charles and Sarah Eldridge founded our family business, at the Green Dragon Brewery in Dorchester, Dorset. After Charles’s premature death, it continued to grow under Sarah’s entrepreneurial stewardship, eventually joining forces with the Pope family to form Eldridge, Pope. By 1881, Eldridge, Pope was the biggest employer in Dorchester, and eventually floated on the stock exchange. I am immensely proud of my Dorset roots and the strong history that my family has in the county, so I was delighted to be able to use Dorset in the choice of my territorial title.

I wish to focus on the contribution of women to our economy in three areas. The first concerns placing a greater onus on building a pool of talent—a pipeline for the future. We need to improve the amount and quality of financial education to allow young girls to better consider risk and reward. We also need to increase the number of women who take up careers in STEM subjects. I commend the Government’s record on this with 16,000 more STEM A-level entries for women since 2010, as well as providing a dedicated fund to help women progress as engineers. I declare my interest as a non-executive director of Imagination Technologies, a FTSE 250 tech company and a UK business that is proud to be working with schools and universities to promote technology, engineering and coding. Broadening access to specialist education and training can only help to increase the number of women working in these fields.

Secondly, we need to provide more readily accessible mentoring. We need to make sure that we do not lose out on female talent because of women thinking that business and entrepreneurship are somehow not for them. I am delighted that the Government have launched a new national campaign to recruit high-quality mentors for young teenagers. Inspirational role models will help young people to make big plans for their future. I would particularly like to thank my mentor in this place, my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft, who secured today’s debate. It is apt that on a day when we are speaking about the importance of mentors, I have such an inspiring exemplar.

Thirdly, flexible working is perhaps the holy grail of equality in the workplace. Until we reach the stage when flexible working is not seen as being synonymous with “lack of ambition”, we will not get enough women in leadership positions, nor will we reap the full economic benefits of greater female participation in the workforce. As has already been mentioned, this potential contribution is estimated to be worth £600 billion by the Women’s Business Council, which is chaired by my noble friend Lady McGregor-Smith, who spoke so passionately earlier in this debate. She is a great role model for the contribution that women can make to the 21st century economy.

My own experience is a mixed one. When I began my career in publishing, my first boss, a woman, provided me with excellent mentorship, demonstrating what it takes to run a business and take risks. It is an industry full of hugely talented women, the noble Baroness, Lady Rebuck, being a noted leader and champion. I have been fortunate to continue my love of publishing and I declare an interest as a non-executive director of a weekly newspaper for children. However, my next experience, working in financial communications was far less encouraging. There, taking time out to have a family had the potential to be viewed as falling off the ladder entirely. A lot has changed in 20 years, but there is still work to be done.

Ultimately, what is our motivation as an economy and as a country for pursuing these goals? I am of the view that this is not about quotas and equality for equality’s sake. This is about businesses being successful. The UK cannot succeed in a fiercely competitive global economy if it is missing out on a large proportion of the talent pool. It is incumbent on us to lay the foundations and provide the right environment. Whether it is about sustainability, innovation or profitability, women can and must play a part to realise our potential as a country. I am proud of my heritage in this field, and speaking now in this place, I hope to be proud of the role that this Government will continue to play in helping women to make a greater contribution to our businesses and to our economy.