Role of Women in Public Life - Motion to Take Note (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:46 pm on 5th February 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative 8:46 pm, 5th February 2018

My Lords, as one of the last Back-Bench speakers speaking today, I thank my noble friend Lady Vere for introducing this important debate. We have heard some deeply moving speeches, reflecting the contribution that women have made over the past 100 years.

I will begin with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, already mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. Not only was she the first female mayor in England but she established a new hospital for women in London in 1872 that was staffed only by women. It was an all-women organisation. She had struggled to qualify as a doctor because she was not accepted as she was not a man. Instead, she became a nursing student, later going on to train in Paris and eventually gaining her Society of Apothecaries certificate to become a doctor.

Elizabeth had a very clear vision of what she wanted to achieve—as did Alice Hawkins from Leicester, whose seven-foot statue was unveiled yesterday in the new market square. Alice left school at 13 and became a shoe machinist. She was actively involved in the Equity Shoes trade union, fighting for the rights of women. She attended the Women’s Social and Political Union rally in Hyde Park, which has already been mentioned, and over the following seven years she was arrested seven times and jailed five—the last time in Holloway, when they thought they had managed to persuade her otherwise.

My noble friend Lord Lexden spoke of Millicent Fawcett and the work done by the Fawcett Society and its members. Indeed, I believe that it is a combination of the approaches of both women, and their determination, that has led to the changes that we are celebrating today. It is true that both Elizabeth and Alice understood the inequalities of life at that time and fought long and hard to change attitudes—although I suspect that others will have come to the fore in very different ways.

One such woman was Rosa Parks, born in America 105 years ago yesterday. She is probably among the top 100 women recognised worldwide. I do not know where she got the confidence to do as she did and withstand the consequences, but she was the girl who, aged 15, refused to give up her seat and get off the bus. In her book, Standing up for Freedom, she said:

“You must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right”.

Last week was the bicentenary of the Institute of Civil Engineers. I wondered whether even one of those founding fathers envisaged a future where the person directly responsible for the infrastructure of the 2012 London Olympics would be a woman. Louise Hardy was just that woman. She masterminded the installation of the roads, cables, telephone wires, broadband, water, sewage disposal, heating and everything else that went with it to make it the mammoth achievement that it became.

I have also chosen to talk about women in public life outside Parliament—those working in business and others serving in their communities, both locally and nationally. In the business world progress is being made—although it is slow, as others have indicated. In 2016 women occupied 35% of all managerial and senior positions, but in 2015, a year earlier, 25% of directors of FTSE 100 companies were women, which was an improvement, and I know that the target is now to increase this to 33% by 2020. In many small and medium-sized companies, women are taking the challenge to start their own businesses and become entrepreneurs in their own right. However, it is in bigger companies that women still struggle to reach the top.

I have been intrigued by Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, already referred to by my noble friend. Sheryl is chief operating officer at Facebook. She describes the inbuilt barriers to success. It is a fascinating read and I recommend it. She acknowledges that women in the developed world are better off than ever, but reflects that until women have supportive employers and colleagues, as well as partners who share family responsibilities, they do not really have that chance.

I turn to the City of London. I must admit that I was surprised that the name of Lady Donaldson was not included in the very good list of firsts for women in public life, as Lady Donaldson was the first woman Lord Mayor of the City of London back in 1983. She was followed by Dame Fiona Woolf in 2013. They are the only two women to hold this post. The role of Lord Mayor is not simply one of great occasions and grandeur but is much more about promoting UK business abroad: during their year the Lord Mayor will probably visit 50 countries, giving more than 900 speeches.

I have spoken about the contribution that women make to local government and the many hours they give to their communities. All of us here started somewhere. I began my public life with the Women’s Voluntary Service and continued with other organisations and charities. However, I pay great tribute to my noble friend Lady Seccombe, who was at the helm when I became involved with the Conservative Women’s Organisation. My noble friend is a good example of encouraging others to achieve their goals, and looking around her this evening she must reflect on the many hours she spent promoting and helping some of us women who are lucky enough to sit in this House. In the same way, my noble friend Lady Jenkin continues to help and inspire women to become parliamentary candidates.

I cannot let this occasion pass without mentioning the late Baroness Thatcher. Her total commitment, courage and belief inspired women of all parties, and some of none, to have confidence to take up the challenge and achieve their personal goal.

Finally, we continue to have the experience of women who are leaders in their sectors. I think of Stella Rimington, Anita Roddick, Ellen MacArthur, Rosalind Franklin and Marie Stopes, to name but a few. Their contribution to society should be recognised. Ellen MacArthur broke the record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe back in 2005. She was not just the best woman, but the best. Her achievements helped squash prejudices about women’s inferiority in sport, and her trust helps young people with serious illnesses.

Listening to the contributions today, one cannot fail to be moved by the achievements over these past 100 years—but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, said, there is so much more to do. For me, equal opportunity is not equal unless everyone receives the encouragement that make seizing the task possible.