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International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:28 pm on 9th March 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Brady Baroness Brady Conservative 3:28 pm, 9th March 2017

My Lords, it is an honour, as always, to speak in this House, particularly as it concerns International Women’s Day, which took place yesterday.

The day is about celebrating women and their contribution to our societies, our communities, our Governments and our nations. But I hope that we do more than that. We are seeking action and we are seeking change. Indeed, as we have heard, the theme for the day this year is “Be Bold for Change”, and we must.

EY, which should be commended for its support for the day, has a clock on its website counting down to the day we reach gender parity. At least there is a clock, one might think. Indeed, the Spectator wrote a leader recently, essentially saying that the problem was being solved and that the pay gap only really existed for women over 40. I hope it is right because at present, the clock stands at 170 years until we reach gender parity. That is surely why we must be “Be Bold for Change”. Indeed, taking an international view, there is still much work to be done. The UN estimates that only 50% of working-age women are represented in the workforce, compared with a figure of 76% for men. And we know it is not because women are standing idle. It is because our economies simply do not recognise the work that many women do. If they are not in low-paid, low-skilled jobs, they are in the informal economy—in social care and domestic roles that, sadly, go unaccounted for. This is not choice; this is not gender parity. But what kind of change must be made and who is the change-maker?

The starting point for some is government and, indeed, there are things government can do. I welcome, for example, the UK’s move to gender pay gap reporting for companies with more than 250 employees. There are limits to what the law can do, but there are no limits to what business can do to drive forward workplace equality and bring the 170-year clock down to meet the UN’s Planet 50-50 goal by 2030. To those who ask, “What about profitability? Isn’t that the only thing business leaders should be concerned with?”, I ask them to read a report on harnessing disruption. Business leaders will be familiar with this challenge. Innovation is about profits, but it is also about survival. Anticipating change and incorporating it into your business is vital in a globalised economy. The report talks of such things as advances in digital and big data analytics—all important trends that, if missed, mean a business can find itself behind a curve it can never get ahead of again.

What do these trends have to do with International Women’s Day? The full title of the report is actually Navigating disruption without gender diversity? Think again! It goes on to explain that, without incorporating what should be a mega-trend—gender diversity—into the workforce, businesses are far more likely to miss disruptive technology. Indeed, a recent report from the Peterson Institute found that 30% female participation on boards can add six points to a company’s net margin—and 30% is not even gender equality.

Yet, the EY report says that 23% of business leaders expect no change to gender diversity in the next five years. So, despite debating it here, in this Chamber, at the heart of government, those who must do the most to “be bold for change” are not Ministers but CEOs and chairmen. They must do it, not because of government policy, not because of equality for equality’s sake and not because of International Women’s Day: they must do it if they want to survive and thrive. CEOs should look at whether they have done enough to attract and retain top female talent. That is the greatest hedge of all.

CEOs, business leaders and especially those like myself who sit in both political and corporate camps, need to ask themselves the same questions Emma Watson asked herself when she stood up in front of the UN and said:

“If not me, who? If not now, when?”

I nearly made it through a whole speech without mentioning Brexit but, alas, business leaders I speak to are rightly concerned about it. Actually, they should be just as concerned about whether they have a plan to attract the best talent to compete, without missing out on half the population. If they do not, the terms of market access, passporting, the single market and the customs union might not be what does for them after all. Top female talent might just be the best insurance they can buy.