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International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:21 pm on 10th March 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for International Trade) (Minister for Women), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 3:21 pm, 10th March 2020

My Lords, it is an honour to begin my role as Minister for Women with a debate on International Women’s Day, which I am sure many of us marked in different ways on Sunday. I am also pleased that my noble friend Lord Ranger, of Mayfair, will make his maiden speech in this debate, as male voices are so important to this debate. I congratulate him and welcome him to his place in your Lordships’ House.

It is 111 years since the first year in which International Women’s Day was marked. I am sure that today we will hear many inspiring examples of women throughout history who have advocated for gender equality, but I also thank the many noble Lords who work tirelessly to improve the lives of women and girls around the world: thank you and please carry on. For our part, this new Government look forward to celebrating women’s achievements, while rolling up our sleeves to tackle the challenges that lie ahead. I want to talk about some of those as we begin our debate.

Many of the most difficult challenges today lie in the damaging attitudes that still exist about what it means to be a boy or a girl, and the idea that people are predisposed to certain roles or skills purely because of their gender. The evidence tells us that those stereotypes can set in at an early age and become much harder to tackle later. We know that even at only nine years of age, girls are less confident than boys in their mathematical abilities. Some would tell us that that is down to innate differences between girls and boys—that girls are less able than boys at maths. But truth be told, results show that females tend to outperform males in maths and science subjects at GCSE. These harmful gender stereotypes can also affect men and boys. New evidence suggests that men and boys are expected to be strong, unemotional and breadwinners, and that these norms can have a significant impact on their social well-being, mental health and quality of life.

Another part of the problem is that women’s role in history has long gone unrecognised—in the sciences, for instance, it has been obscured or glossed over—yet there are so many brilliant women, without whose ingenuity and tenacity our lives would be much poorer today: the first ever computer programmer, Ada Lovelace; Marie Curie, for her discovery of radium and polonium, and her huge contribution to finding treatments for cancer, which eventually won her a Nobel Prize; or Rosalind Franklin, a scientist now acknowledged for her work on X-ray diffraction images of DNA, which led to the discovery of the DNA double helix. I am delighted to say that this remarkable woman is now being recognised by the international effort to send a rover to Mars, which is naming its pioneering robot after her, all these years after the Nobel Committee acknowledged only her male colleagues.

This issue is pressing for us today as the demand for STEM skills is growing. The Government are investing in programmes to ensure that girls and boys can succeed on an equal basis, particularly in STEM subjects, to improve representation of women in higher-paying STEM sectors. DfE figures show that between 2010 and 2019 there has been a 31% increase in girls’ entries to STEM A-levels in England and a 34% rise in women accepted on to full-time STEM undergraduate courses in the UK. But as things stand, women make up 24% of the core STEM workforce.

This can only be the start, but challenging these stereotypes is essential to level up our country so that everyone has the opportunity to lead their lives as they wish. This year marks 50 years since the introduction of the Equal Pay Act. This landmark legislation was the culmination of years of campaigning by women who chose to take a stand against the injustice of being undervalued, underpaid and overlooked. While the machinists of Dagenham are undoubtedly the most famous, they did not fight alone. I applaud the tenacity of the women bringing forward recent cases, demonstrating that it remains a crucial enforcement tool, empowering women from all walks of life, many in lower-paid roles, to not only secure fair pay but to demand that their work be valued.

To assist similar women we have expanded free childcare for three and four year-olds to 30 hours a week and we have introduced shared parental leave so that parents can share the joy—and, yes, some of the less joyful bits—of their child’s early years, because childcare is not just a women’s issue: fathers are of course equally responsible for their families. I also acknowledge, as many of us in this House know very well, that the childcaring team often extends far beyond parents and formal childcare arrangements to dedicated, loving armies of aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers and just about every relation in between, so the offer of flexible working should be of great value to them.

As 60% of carers are women, the Government’s £6.6 million investment to support carers to remain in or return to work is an important step, and our manifesto shows that we are committed to go further. We will also introduce a dedicated entitlement to leave for unpaid carers of one week per year, to better support carers to balance work and care. A matter of celebration is the current record employment rate for women. It has increased by 37% over the past half-century, from 53% in 1971 to its current record 72.4%, and increases in full-time employment for women have contributed roughly 90% of the increase since these more detailed statistics began to be collected in 1992.

But I want us to be honest that this is not the case for all women. Women from ethnic minority backgrounds have lower employment rates than white women, with the lowest in the British Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnic groups, where fewer than two-fifths of women are employed. That is why we are running mentoring circles around the country, involving national employers offering specialist support to the unemployed, young, ethnic minority jobseeker.

We need to use our sector deals to support women in underrepresented industries, such as the offshore wind sector, which has committed to women being a third of the workforce by 2030. More than 130 aviation and aerospace charter signatories are also giving sustained attention to building a more balanced, fairer industry for women.

The Government are determined to see more women leading UK businesses. If women chose to start and expand businesses at a similar level to that of men, we would add billions of pounds to our economy, so the Government will be taking actions, such as those recommended in the Alison Rose review, and I am encouraged to see examples such as RBS, which recently introduced a £1 billion fund to help women’s enterprise.

As well as work, however, we need to ensure that women’s rights, safety, freedom and dignity are recognised and respected. This Government are taking action to bring an end to sexual harassment in the workplace, including carrying out the largest ever survey on this topic in the UK so that we can finally understand the true picture of the problem, and design targeted solutions that will work. We have also committed to ensuring protections against third-party harassment; for instance, from customers or suppliers. I know that the vast majority of leaders across the world of work are with us in wanting to root out sexual harassment in the workplace.

Of course, it is not only in the workplace that safety is important. Regrettably, there has been an increase in the number of female victims of homicide over the past three years, as reported through the Femicide Census. We are determined to tackle this, and I am therefore proud of this Government’s commitment to the passage of the Domestic Abuse Bill. It will be landmark legislation that tackles an injustice affecting the lives of far too many people.

While we are making progress here in the UK, we have also been blazing a trail internationally. The Prime Minister’s first speech set out his ongoing commitment to ensuring that girls across the world have the right to 12 years of quality education, and I am delighted that this will be my noble friend Lady Sugg’s first time in a debate in your Lordships’ House as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Girls’ Education internationally. Noble Lords should bring their domestic concerns to me.

The UK is proud to have a strong track record of championing gender equality and women’s rights globally, evidenced by our efforts to uphold sexual and reproductive health rights, the national action plan to end violence against women and girls, DfID’s strategic vision for gender equality, and our cross-government global girls’ education campaign: Leave No Girl Behind.

The UK can learn a huge amount from other countries. For instance, Rwanda has gone above and beyond its constitutional commitments and has the highest percentage—more than 60%—of female parliamentarians in the world as of the latest elections in 2018. This translates into women holding more than 50% of cabinet positions in Rwanda.

As a woman of faith—the Christian faith—I am very conscious of the role that faith communities can and do play in gender equality. After all, 84% of people around the world self-identify as having a faith. Of course, faith communities can play different roles in different contexts. Some religious institutions and their leaderships can have an inhibiting impact on girls and women and the range of choices they are genuinely able to make, especially when it comes to working outside the home. To my mind, where faith is manipulated in this way, it really is not about faith at all, it is about power and patriarchy. What I see and applaud are the many examples of where faith goes hand in hand with rights, protections and, ultimately, social progress. For example, research funded by the UK Government has shown the incredibly positive roles that faith leaders have played to reduce violence against women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We must not shy away from commending and critiquing the faith dynamic as we work for women’s equality at home and abroad.

I conclude by reiterating that I am proud to participate in today’s debate with so many staunch advocates of equality for women. I am proud to be part of this Government, and it is an honour to play my part in the work we are doing and will continue to do to fight for equality for women here in the UK and across the world. I beg to move.