My Lords, just before I came into the Chamber this afternoon, I heard the very sad news that the principal of my old college, Sister Dorothy Bell, has died. I want to put on record that she was strong, compassionate, very funny and a great supporter of other women. She was a person I will never forget. She is now in Hansard—and, I am sure, in heaven.
I am delighted to be taking part in this year’s Lords debate to celebrate International Women’s Day. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, for setting out the many positive initiatives that the Government have put forward or are supporting, especially on violence against women. However, like my noble friend Lady Gale I am dismayed that this might be the last such debate with us as members of the European Union, which has been the bedrock of women’s and family rights legislation for four decades.
We discuss the Irish backstop a great deal in this House, but the EU’s historic backstop in the protection of women’s workplace rights is a story still to be told. EU law underpins the Equality Act 2010, including rights to equal treatment for part-time workers, the majority of them women; to health and safety protection for pregnant workers; and to maternity leave, emergency time off for dependants, and parental leave. As chair of the Women’s Rights Committee in the European Parliament in the early 1990s when this country signed up to the maternity leave directive, I am inclined to take these issues personally. The TUC, the BMA and others have written to us setting out their concerns that while the Government have committed to maintaining equality rights and transposing other rights into UK law upon withdrawal from the EU, those rights could become vulnerable to amendment, narrower interpretation and weaker enforcement following Brexit. So for me, Brexit is no good for women.
It is inspiring to think that debates such as ours today are taking place in Parliaments all around the world this week—from countries where voting rights for women are over a century old to those where women have only just won the vote. As I understand it, one of the themes this year is the need to highlight the gender digital divide. That divide is highlighted in the research by our own excellent Lords Library for this debate, which says that an analysis of world labour markets in 2018 by the World Economic Forum,
“focused specifically on the gender gap in artificial intelligence … It found that, globally, 22% of AI professionals were female, compared to 78% who were male. This produced a gender gap of 72%; the WEF stated this remained constant and ‘does not at present indicate a positive future trend’. The study ranked the UK 10th globally for its AI talent pool, with 20% female”.
Three worrying future trends come out of these figures. First, the AI skills gender gap may exacerbate the gender gaps in economic participation and opportunity for women, as AI represents an increasingly in-demand skillset. Secondly, the AI skills gender gap implies that general-purpose technology across various fields is being developed without women’s talent, so limiting its innovative and inclusive capacity. Thirdly, the low integration of women into artificial intelligence talent pools represents such a missed opportunity in a sector where there is insufficient supply of adequately qualified talent. Some estimates tell us that by 2030, up to 9 million people’s jobs will be replaced by AI. It is the future, whether we like it or not, and not enough women and girls are creating that future. I would like to hear what the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, has to say—I am sure she is as concerned as we are about these figures—and what she believes the Government can do about it.