My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, for securing this debate. She and other speakers have demonstrated much wisdom and expertise, and we have heard two excellent maiden speeches.
I am delighted to be a supporter of a new initiative called Women’s Work Global, which aims to help professional women who need to take time off work to have children or care for other relatives. All too often, these responsibilities can unfairly disrupt and impede the career of women.
When I was still a junior barrister, one of the few female members in our chambers told the senior managing clerk that she would need some time off to go on maternity leave. He rolled his eyes and moaned, “Oh, all right then, if you must. I had hoped you were taking your career seriously. I tell you what, if you can arrange a morning birth, then I can have you booked into court again for a 2pm start”. Now I know he was only joking, but 30 years afterwards the difficulties that women face in juggling careers with domestic life is still an issue.
There are also unfair perceptions that women have to deal with and overcome. Ridiculous phrases such as “the weaker sex” come to mind. When I was in my teens, I was excited to be selected for the Warwickshire County Cricket colts. It was our first day training. The coach walked over and announced, “Right lads, you are going to have the honour and privilege of bowling at the captain of the England cricket team”. There was a gasp among the squad and our chests filled with pride. Then the England captain came out of the dressing room. There was a shocked silence. One of the squad groaned, “But, sir, it’s a woman, sir”. The coach bellowed, “Well done, lad, you are very observant. Now if you want to stay as a member of this county squad, you will do as you are told”. So, for the next 20 minutes, we aspiring professional male cricketers bowled, without success, as she outplayed us each time. The England captain, we later learned, was Rachael Heyhoe Flint—now the noble Baroness, Lady Heyhoe Flint, of Wolverhampton—and a very successful businesswoman.
Women from black and ethnic minority backgrounds have historically faced the double obstacle of racism and issues relating to gender, but there are role models who have triumphed over these. I was privileged to conduct a project recently looking at positive aspects of diversity. This has included me interviewing some successful women from BME communities. For example, Pinky Lilani OBE came to Britain from India more than 40 years ago. She said that when she came to Britain she could not even cook, but in order to get to know her neighbours she started inviting them in to taste this exotic food called curry. She now owns a global food business. She writes cook books and advises restaurants. She is also the founder and chair of a number of awards events, including the Asian Women of Achievement Awards and the Women of the Future Awards.
I also had the pleasure of interviewing Christine Ohuruogu MBE, the Olympic and world 400-metres champion and captain of the England athletics team. She is a businesswoman, too, in that her running success has brought her into the world of sports brand marketing. She explained how she has learned never to give up. In the world 400-metres final in 2013, she was fourth coming round the final bend but went on to win. Christine won by 0.004 of a second, by dipping her head at the winning tape. “It’s never over until it’s over”, she said, smiling. I am not suggesting that every woman, or indeed man, can become an Olympic or world champion, but the principle is that it is never over until it is over. That can apply to all of us—black, white, male or female.
These women have shown, by inspiration and, indeed, perspiration, that success can be achieved. Although 20% of small and medium-sized companies are run by women, there is still so much untapped business talent among women, especially in the BME communities. There are ongoing issues, as we have heard from other speakers, such as the pay gap between women’s and men’s earnings, the cost of childcare, the need for more women in science, technology, engineering and as university vice-chancellors. We have heard that more women now are getting on to company boards, but we still need to make more progress there.
If she does not mind me saying so, I hope that the success of the noble Baroness, Lady Brady, at West Ham United, will inspire the appointment of more female chief executives in the sporting business world, for example, at football clubs, which are still very male dominated. Perhaps I can put out a plea to the noble Baroness, Lady Brady, that she might like to take over my club, Aston Villa. It is a very strong club because, like Samson, it manages to lift up the other 19 clubs in the league. In other words, it is at rock bottom of the league table. Baroness Brady, we need you.
Women-led businesses contribute around £82 billion gross value to the UK economy. I acknowledge that the Government support them in a number of ways, such as helping more women to get online with their broadband challenge fund and their Get Mentoring project, but the budgets are modest and I would like to see such projects better resourced and expanded.
Women making a contribution to an economy is not a new thing. There were prominent women business leaders in the Bible, over 2,000 years ago: in the Book of Acts, Lydia ran a fashion company, Priscilla owned an up-market residence franchise and Queen Candace governed her nation’s economy; and Deborah, in the Book of Judges, was the nation’s chief lawyer. There are many more examples. Those biblical heroines—and, indeed, women of today—show that women can be a voice, not just an echo.