I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft—herself a notable role model—on this debate and the chance it gave us to hear two such imaginative and high-quality maiden speeches from the noble Baronesses, Lady McGregor-Smith and Lady Rock. It is good to welcome the sisters, especially to a debate such as this. We have celebrated some notable examples of women in business, such as Dame Stephanie, and we have been particularly honoured to hear some of the high achievers speaking in today’s debate. We need more of their sort.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, told the FT:
“Gender equality in the tech sector will benefit the global economy”.
So will gender equality in every sector benefit the wider economy. Women’s advancement produces better outcomes and prosperity. Indeed, a trained, productive and better-paid female workforce is a surefire way of boosting economic growth, as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Brady. As the President of the World Bank said,
“gender equality doesn’t require trade-offs; it only has benefits. And the benefits accrue to everyone, not just women and girls. Societies benefit and as even men are beginning to understand, economies benefit, too”.
It is the responsibility of all of us—government, business, women and perhaps especially men—to make this happen so that UK plc can benefit from this underused talent, by increasing entry into higher-paid and more productive jobs; by extending opportunities, training and promotion to women; and by removing the barriers to better employment for women.
We start, as has been made clear today, from a poor position: 96% of chairs or CEOs of FTSE 100 companies are men. As the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, said, more chairs or CEOs are called “John” than are women. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, reminded the House, the percentage of senior women in the private sector—19%—puts the UK in the bottom 10 countries globally, despite companies in the top quartile of gender diversity being 15% more likely to outperform the industry median, as the noble Baroness, Lady Mobarik, said. Given that women are key consumers, making eight out of 10 purchases, having them shape companies is bound to be good for business.
We can help women progress. Young Enterprise’s Women in Business programme encourages women-led creative start-ups, giving all-female teams the opportunity to set up and run their own businesses, gaining advice from mentors and in workshops, and on bringing a product to market. Participants increased their soft skills by 34%, with improvements in work-readiness and financial capability.
But encouraging and training alone will not help. We have to tackle that gender pay gap, which, to use the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, again, is glaring. At 19%, it is well above the EU average and, sadly, is larger in the private than in the public sector. Overall, it means that, relative to men’s year-round wages, women stop earning on
Mandating gender pay transparency in large companies will help, but it ignores those millions of women in SMEs and is no substitute for better recruitment, training, promotion, fair pay and the flexible work patterns that were stressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Rock. Transparency alone does nothing about low pay in predominantly female labour forces—retail, hospitality, personal services and residential care—which have a poverty rate of 17% after housing costs, twice that of other employees. Training is key but while the majority of apprentices are women, they are underrepresented in construction and ICT while dominating in health, social care and hairdressing—the low-paid sectors. Indeed, on average female apprentices earn £1 an hour less than their male equivalents.
That gender inequality is felt not just by the people concerned but by the whole economy. The loss of women in science, for example, costs the economy about £2 billion a year. Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum said:
“Only those economies who have full access to all their talent will remain competitive and … prosper”.
The Government themselves have said:
“Our economy is losing out due to women’s academic achievements, experience and talents not being effectively utilised”.
But what are the Government doing about it? They are making work less attractive to women by allowing maternity discrimination to almost double in 10 years, with 54,000 pregnant women and new mothers—that is, one in nine—forced out of their job. They have created barriers to justice for victims of maternity discrimination by their cuts to legal aid and upfront tribunal fees of up to £1,200, leading to Maternity Action’s helpline getting 42 times more calls than it can answer.
Even the Conservative MP Maria Miller has tweeted:
“We cannot allow up to 54,000 new mothers a year”,
“feel they should leave their job”.
So I am afraid that it is no good the Commons Minister admitting that,
“far too many women … face unacceptable treatment in the workplace”—[ Official Report , Commons, 3/11/15; col. 322WH.]
It is her Government who have made things worse. Labour in government did an enormous amount to increase the fair treatment of women in work through the Work and Families Act, which extended maternity leave to a full year for all employed women, and tripling the number of nursery places. This Government must follow our example. They must walk the walk and not just talk the talk.