International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:50 pm on 7th March 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 5:50 pm, 7th March 2019

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed today. It is indeed true: I regard myself as a champion of equality, albeit a reluctant one as I am rather irritated that we still need to have these debates. I truly wish that was not the case. In the olden days I did not like the word “feminist” because people used to tell me what to think and I do not like being told what to think. So I am very happy to be a sister, but perhaps I will not quite put on the T-shirt.

We have heard some powerful and moving messages from across the Chamber today. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is that we continue to discuss and debate gender equality to ensure that this issue gets the attention it deserves. We will be back the same time next year, but earlier in the day.

I have to cover education, employment, women’s leadership—particularly in public and civic life—discrimination, Brexit, the tragedy of violence against women and international considerations in 20 minutes. I do not have a hope. Therefore, if I cannot do justice to the questions asked by noble Lords, I will of course write. In fact, I very much look forward to that letter as it will give me an opportunity to go into more detail than I am able to do today.

I turn first to employment and education, which is a thread that runs through everything. Women can be empowered only if they are educated and gainfully employed so that they can have their own income. This was mentioned by so many noble Lords. Working from the top—I do not plan to address peerages; I am thinking more of women on boards—this issue has been around for many years. I was going to cite all the figures. It is true that we have made progress with women on boards, but not nearly enough. I am disappointed that these figures are not better. I recognise the restrictions of the pipeline and the other things that feed into our ability to get women on to boards, but I also find the paucity of women in executive roles very disheartening. I hope that in a few years’ time we will return to this and find that the numbers look much better than they do now.

The gender pay gap was covered by my noble friend Lady Williams of Trafford so I will not go into it in great detail. But it is worth remembering that reporting is just the start. We said that we would start noting how companies are doing on the gender pay gap. It is crucial now that employers use gender pay gap data to identify the barriers to women’s recruitment and progression. They must take action to break down those barriers; otherwise, what on earth is the point of reporting all this data? We have published evidence-based guidance on practical actions that employers can take to close the gap, alongside help to diagnose it: to figure out why their gaps are happening in the first place.

I turn to the speeches by my noble friend Lady Rock and the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley. On the gamut of tech and AI, was it not absolutely fascinating to hear about the algorithms written by men and how rubbish they are, as they do only one thing whereas we need them to cover everybody? There was some comment about what the Government can do. We are doing many things to make sure that the technology space becomes more diverse. We are supporting a scheme called the Tech Talent Charter. It is a private sector initiative designed to promote diversity in the tech workforce. The signatories to the charter pledge to implement recruitment and retention practices that will address the gender imbalance in tech roles. Some 290 companies are signed up to it, from international tech giants through to start-up SMEs and charities. All government departments have agreed to adopt the charter; DCMS was the first to sign up. This is one of the many tangible things we can do to get more women interested in tech and to make sure women are there to sort out our algorithms for us, because clearly they will not sort themselves out.

Another point to mention is that we are supporting female entrepreneurs. That is important. We have heard before that women often struggle to get loans from banks or equity from VC funds. The government-backed start-up loan system is providing funding and support to new entrepreneurs. Some 39% of loans go to women, so it is not quite 50%, but it could be worse. That is £450 million, which is a fair amount of money, and I wish those women great success.