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International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:41 pm on 9th March 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Shields Baroness Shields The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Internet Safety and Security 2:41 pm, 9th March 2017

My Lords, as we come together in your Lordships’ House today, millions of people around the world are celebrating International Women’s Day: people who have travelled very different paths and faced difficult challenges but who are united in the belief that no country can truly flourish—socially, economically or democratically—if it leaves half its people behind. This year’s theme is, “Be Bold for Change”.

In some regards, it is a sad indictment that despite the integral role that women play in every aspect of life, we still struggle to be considered equal. In the opening years of the 20th century, courageous women joined hands and stood beside each other in solidarity. Outside this very House, suffragettes fought for women’s rights in our democracy, yet more than 100 years on, we are still striving to become a society that is truly equal. I feel a great sense of unity and purpose in this House, especially on the issue of gender equality, and I have every confidence that there will be a significant and meaningful debate today. But this debate goes way beyond our borders: the responsibility to raise awareness and tackle gender inequality in all forms is universal. It sits at the very heart of achieving fundamental human rights and equality for all.

In this country, we can be enormously proud of the progress we have made on gender equality. This Government have made great strides in ensuring that men and women are rewarded equally for their skills and abilities. More women than ever are in work, and the gender pay gap is at its lowest point, but we must persist. The new gender pay gap regulations, which will come into force next month, will provide greater transparency and move us significantly in the direction of eliminating the pay gap altogether. This progress, combined with our introduction of shared parental leave and pay, is also an important step in recognising the often undervalued work that women do. It goes a long way to addressing the impact of punitive career setbacks that occur when one parent takes on the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities.

I remember those painful setbacks myself. As a single mother, I experienced the immense pressure of wanting to be a perfect and indestructible parent while having to support my son and trying to lead a successful professional life. It is a balancing act that is often misunderstood and can be incredibly challenging and heartbreaking, which is why it is of the utmost importance that we give single parents the credit and support they deserve. Luckily, in my professional life I have had the privilege of working in some of the most forward-thinking, creative and innovative companies, and throughout that experience I have witnessed great women contributing their skills and talents to improving our lives through technology and innovation.

Technology has the power to be the great leveller. The internet represents opportunity on a massive scale and in theory empowers equally, yet when it comes to the question of women and their place in the technology sector, this rule does not seem to apply. Indeed, often it is quite the opposite, as men outnumber women and dominate senior roles. Women currently fill less than 30% of tech jobs in the United Kingdom. One explanation is that there are simply not enough women applying for these roles and even fewer girls studying science, technology and coding in secondary schools.

This was not always the case. In fact, women in the UK played a significant role in the beginnings of modern computing. The portrait of Ada Lovelace, which hangs proudly in No. 10 Downing Street, is a testament to this. The Countess of Lovelace was a brilliant mathematician who wrote the first instructions for the analytical engine which launched the birth of computing. We cannot forget the proud tradition of the pioneering women code-breakers of Bletchley Park—or women in science and technology the world over, for that matter. For example, there are those who worked for NASA, as portrayed recently in the Oscar-nominated film “Hidden Figures”. These brilliant African-American women scientists calculated crucial flight trajectories for Project Mercury and other successful space missions, but received faint praise at the time.

By the 1980s, the advent of home computing made the industry lucrative, and we started seeing advertising showing teenage boys playing videogames, making them suddenly the de facto experts in this once female-friendly business. Jobs in IT became high status, and as the pay packets grew bigger, men took over the jobs previously done by women. So much so, that in my first computer science class in 1980, there were just three women in a class of 400.

The Government want women back where they belong, taking the lead in computing. We were the first Government globally to introduce computing in the national curriculum, allowing pupils to learn computational thinking and creativity as active participants in the digital world. We worked with some fantastic organisations, such as the Stemettes, which provides effective mentoring schemes and events for young women and girls that give them confidence and the belief that they can succeed in science, technology, engineering and maths. Women Who Code, a global non-profit programme, is working to inspire women and encourage them to embrace careers in technology. Nationwide programmes such as the Code Club provide networks of volunteer-led, after-school coding clubs for younger children and girls in particular. In addition, the Government are supporting women entrepreneurs by investing £2.2 million as part of the superfast broadband rollout, which will enable them to access new markets and grow their businesses online.

The UK is a world leader in gender equality, and we take great pride in that. But outside the UK, millions of girls are kept from attending school, and this is a significant factor in poverty and lack of economic opportunity. UK aid has helped educate 5.3 million girls globally, giving them choice over their futures and the means to secure their livelihoods. We also played an important role in securing global agreement for UN sustainable development goal number 5, which is to:

“Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”.

Internationally, this Government have been a powerful voice for women’s protection and equality. We established a benchmark through the Modern Slavery Act, which gives law enforcement the tools to fight this appalling crime. It gives them the tools to ensure perpetrators are brought to justice and enhances the support and protection available for victims.

Additionally, the Home Office is co-ordinating efforts across government, and globally, to tackle the crime of FGM and is supporting the work of the voluntary and community sectors, survivors and professionals who oppose this extreme manifestation of gender inequality and abuse. This work enables us to raise awareness and to become part of a wider conversation that empowers women globally to have open discussions, both online and offline, about this devastating practice.

I firmly believe that technology is a vital piece of the puzzle in how we effect female empowerment. Today, it is the means by which we communicate, learn, network, and engage with global markets. Digital technologies have great potential as tools for the inclusion of marginalised groups, enabling new kinds of participation in economic and political processes. Recently, we saw this potential in action as women organised online and marched in cities all round the world to defend their basic human rights. However, the digital world must also be safe, inclusive and empowering. That means building resilience through education and equipping all people with the tools to respond to and report harmful content, so that there is no opportunity to use the internet as a weapon against equality.

I know that many women have been recipients of hurtful, aggressive and degrading attacks online. Online misogyny is abhorrent. It is a global gender rights tragedy and must be addressed. We air our views on social media and we are punished with mockery, harassment and the threat of sexual abuse. For many this is compounded by racist and homophobic language. These tactics are used to undermine our human rights and dignity and to silence our voices. To that end, the recently announced review of domestic abuse and violence legislation presents us with an opportunity to simplify the existing wide-ranging legal protections and support people with the information and knowledge they need to protect themselves. Nobody should be left in any doubt of our commitment to ensuring that all women and girls live free from violence and abuse, whether online or in their communities.

Our commitment to this cause is exemplified by the work of the WePROTECT Global Alliance, which was founded and funded by this Government. Today WePROTECT works in collaboration with more than 70 countries, NGOs and law enforcement and industry leaders as part of a multi-stakeholder initiative to galvanise global action and eradicate child sexual abuse and exploitation online.

The newly announced cross-government drive on online safety, led by DCMS, will bring together the Home Office, the Department for Education, the Department of Health and the Ministry of Justice as part of a powerful co-ordinated effort to continue our work to make the internet safer.

We are also using new, technology-led communication to speak directly to young people and to help them recognise abuse. Our acclaimed teenage relationship abuse campaign, Disrespect NoBody, encourages teens to rethink their views on violence, abuse and consent. Young people need information and tools to build healthy, respectful and nurturing relationships. That is why last week, the Government announced a new duty on all schools to provide education on relationships as part of the PSHE curriculum.

The Child Exploitation and Online Protection CentreCEOP—works across the UK to tackle child sex abuse and to provide advice for parents and young people. This work is both national and international and ensures that online child sex offenders are brought to justice in the UK courts, including those involved in the production and distribution of child abuse material.

Of course, more needs to be done and today’s theme, Be Bold for Change, means that everyone is watching expectantly to ensure that we continue making progress. Progress will not come easily—no true progress ever does. However, I am sure that I speak for all noble Lords here today in embracing the commitment to never stop striving towards a truly equal society. I beg to move.