[Martin Caton in the Chair] — Promotion of Women in Business

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 22 March 2011.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Angela Watkinson.)

Photo of Helen Grant Helen Grant Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald 9:30, 22 March 2011

Balance is the centrepiece of science; it is the fulcrum of philosophy; and it is stability in society—light and dark, hot and cold, yin and yang. We need to balance the resources at our disposal in order to exist and grow. Good business managers embrace balance in so many ways—risk and return, investment and innovation, supply and demand. However, an imbalance that is common in business, the professions and politics is the one between men and women in senior positions.

That imbalance is often labelled a gender equality issue, but actually it is a business performance issue. Men and women bring different things to the business table, which are not mutually exclusive. Women can be great at multi-tasking; men can be cool under pressure and very spontaneous. Both have different attitudes towards risk and confrontation. However, if we put the two together, it is no surprise that gender-balanced businesses are more stable, more sustainable and more profitable. Those involved with such businesses tend to make better decisions about people, risk and customers. Let us not forget that women make 80% of consumer purchase decisions in many countries.

If we can share the best of what we have as men and women, our diversity will enrich us all. There are many barriers to progress. Business is a man’s world built by men and, because people tend to recruit in their own image, male imbalance prevails. In the home, women are still the primary carers, and the struggle to juggle domestic duties and a demanding job can be a major hurdle. Silly stereotypes have been created in relation to both domains. Men are characterised as being confident, aggressive and direct, while women are characterised as being kind, warm and gentle, and therefore as perhaps not having quite what it takes to tackle tough business decisions. The truth could not be further from the myth. However, even today, some people still argue that gender difference in attainment is simply because of personal choice, aspiration and preference.

Some Governments have already taken action. Eight years ago, Norway passed legislation requiring all public and state-owned company boards to be 40% female. Spain and France are now following suit. Norway has achieved its quota, but succession is now a problem. Board members typically come from senior management in private companies. However, in Norway, only 6% of those posts are held by women. Clearly, a root-and-branch approach is still required.

Photo of Gareth Johnson Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I know that the issue is very important to her. I hope that she agrees that we are striving for a quality of fairness. Does she also agree that we need to ensure that such fairness is not patronising to women and does not replace one form of apparent discrimination with another?

Photo of Helen Grant Helen Grant Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

My hon. Friend makes a very good point—I could not agree more. I shall cover that issue later. I am grateful for his intervention.

In Britain, we have much to do. Only 5% of FTSE 100 companies have a female chief executive, and only 12% of board directors are women. Our Government have promised to promote gender equality, and I am encouraged by coalition policies on flexible working and parental leave. Lord Davies of Abersoch is leading a review on women on boards, and his report has just been published. He has got it just about right and is seeking to accelerate glacial rates of change without causing global warming. Recommendations include encouraging head-hunters to put more women on shortlists, requiring chairmen to explain why boards lack female representation, inviting investors to take more responsibility in holding their plcs to account on matters of gender balance and, importantly, introducing voluntary targets to raise the number of female directors in Britain’s biggest companies while not ruling out quotas.

Enforced quotas worry me. I am really, really sceptical about them, because such positive discrimination can demean a woman’s real value among her peers and alienate men. Some would also say that quotas treat symptoms, not causes, and there is some truth in that. Surely our aspiration must be the creation of fair, real and equal opportunities, where meritocracy wins the day. Change is coming, and whether it comes eventually through quotas or by more gentle pressure will be a matter for serious and ongoing debate. Even without legislation, some British companies are already committed to gender balance and a variety of methods are being used. Mentoring and sponsorship, setting targets and using best practice illuminated by the light of transparency can all work very well. Part-time working arrangements can improve female retention. In fact, any family-friendly strategy that allows women just a little more flexibility, especially when their children are young, can pay big dividends—and word gets around because women talk. On an individual level, women can help themselves, too. We may need to be more assertive in our approach and not be afraid to take credit for our achievements.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining the debate. I promised my wife that I would be here this morning, because she is a business woman—it is more than my life is worth not to be. Although we perhaps have an issue around Government policy, does she agree that dealing with the matter should start earlier in life and that our colleges and universities could help to encourage women in entrepreneurship, so that things are more equal across the boardroom table?

Photo of Helen Grant Helen Grant Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important intervention—I am sure that his wife will be proud. I could not agree more. Part of dealing with the problem is considering how to ensure that our girls—our young ladies—have much brighter, bigger, bolder, ambitious career advice when they are at school and university. The sky should be the limit—I agree with him completely.

I come back to men. Men, too, need to become better listeners. They need to learn to hear a woman’s voice and embrace the enlightenment of a broader horizon, because when courageous women and enlightened men—we have a few of those here today—come together, there is little that cannot be achieved. The non-believers should consider the following comment made by an all-male board member:

“Our board is really effective. We all think the same way. We all have the same views. Discussions are very short and we always reach the same conclusions”.

That all sounds very happy, but is that board healthy? Balanced boards are a noble aspiration, but there is a bigger picture. Boards are central in corporate life, but senior executives and managers create the wealth. That is where gender balance can be so effective. If we can recruit more women to those senior executive positions and train, nurture, promote and encourage them, then the transition to CEO and the board should be a much more natural step. In many ways, dealing with that is more difficult than dealing with quotas.

Enlightened leaders, both male and female, cast a lengthy shadow. Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, has set himself a target of one third of Ministers to be female by 2015. Likewise, a group of powerful London businessmen are aiming at one third female boards by 2015. A few weeks ago, the Financial Times published its list of the top 50 women in world business. Those women run organisations such as PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, Yahoo! and Xerox. Their success is cause for much celebration and they stand as much-needed role models. The aspirations of those leaders encourage millions. I take great heart in their initiatives, because it says to me that there is room at the top and the door is open.

In conclusion, this is an exciting time for the promotion of women in business, the professions and politics. Government have an important role to play, but legislation alone will not fix the problem. We need chairmen, chief executives, investors and head-hunters to all take action. The Davies report is a step in the right direction. I urge the Government to accept its sensible recommendations and to reconsider the whole issue of child care. Inadequate and unaffordable child care prescribes many women to the home, or to not having children. If some improvements can be made, many capable women will be released back into the working economy as taxpayers, entrepreneurs and wealth creators, which is exactly what our country needs at this difficult time.

Photo of Mary Macleod Mary Macleod Conservative, Brentford and Isleworth 9:42, 22 March 2011

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Grant on securing this important debate on an issue that, for me, is all about aspiration and allowing individuals—men and women—to achieve their potential. We know that many women are stopped from achieving that potential, from being the best they can be and from delivering real value at senior levels in business. We need to do something about that.

I welcome the report from Lord Davies. He has looked at the issue in detail, involved many people in the discussion and come out with a good series of suggestions. I am a strong believer—as might be imagined from me being here—in the importance of having more women in business at senior levels. I worked for more than 20 years in the City in different sectors and have seen the lack of women at senior levels. I fundamentally believe that that is not necessarily because women are doing something wrong—although I agree with my hon. Friend that they can promote themselves better—but because there are serious issues about how we select women and people on to the boards in the City.

Photo of Anne Marie Morris Anne Marie Morris Conservative, Newton Abbot

Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the challenge is the structuring of the career path? We are all now living longer. If we could find ways of structuring career paths, whether in the corporate or professional worlds, so that men or women could go into it at different times, that might ease the problem. In the professional and corporate worlds, we see a hub at the age of 30 where it is either make or break—the same time that many women want to have their families. That puts on undue pressure and makes that decision much harder than it would be if we had a career span that was much longer, over the many years that we are going to be working.

Photo of Mary Macleod Mary Macleod Conservative, Brentford and Isleworth

I agree with my hon. Friend. There is not a one-size-fits-all way of doing things. Different women will have different career paths and will do things at different stages of their lives. We want the flexibility to adapt to those different career paths and still to allow people to get to the top levels in business. I have seen the lack of opportunity and meritocracy that currently exists in business. We are not drawing from the possible range of talent that exists. That means that organisations suffer, that business and the economy generally suffer, so the country suffers. We need to do something about that, because there is a huge untapped pool of talent.

Why is this issue important? As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald has mentioned, some of the reports and studies are not only about aspiration, but performance. Studies such as one by McKinsey’s have looked at a range of statistics that show that companies with a higher proportion of women in senior management teams, in essence, outperform their rivals, with a 42% higher return on sales, a 66% higher return on invested capital and a 53% higher return on equity. There is improved decision making, as was mentioned. Such companies may also be more responsive to the market, make better decisions and have improved corporate governance.

The current position is an issue. Only 12.5% of directors of FTSE 100 companies are women and only 7.8% of directors of FTSE 250 companies are women. Some 52.4% of companies have no women on their boards at all. That is a disgrace. There are a few reasonably good examples. GlaxoSmithKline, in my constituency, has 38% of senior positions held by women. It is good that that has improved year-on-year in the past five years, and that it has improved at the different levels—whether manager, director, senior vice-president or vice-president. That is what we want to see: an ongoing improvement at all levels so that there is opportunity for all.

In so many organisations, the frustrating thing is that progress has plateaued. Contrary to the widely held myth, there is no evidence to suggest that there is a shortage of appropriately qualified women in the pipeline. There are plenty of women to take on board-level roles, but we need to start to change the thinking about what the requirements are. As Lord Davies said, we must promote on the basis of merit and skills. That is important if we want a true meritocracy, and to have true fairness and opportunity. Lord Davies’ report mentions getting companies to talk about and publish their figures. That is a great starting point and something that we absolutely should do.

Other measures that need to happen include the better mentoring and sponsoring of the next generation of executives. One programme that exists and works very well is the FTSE 100 cross-company mentoring programme. Many chairmen of FTSE 100 companies are trying that new mentoring approach that will help in the long term, because it aims to sponsor, nurture and mentor the next generation and help them with the skills and experience to get to the next level.

More also needs to be done with networking for senior women in business. A study by Higgs and Tyson found that almost half of the directors they surveyed had been recruited through personal friendships and contacts. That is probably something that we all recognise, so it is important to build up those networking opportunities.

We also need to fight media images and stereotypes. The more we can create, promote and highlight role models, the better it will be, because we want the younger generation of women to see that it is possible to get to the top of their business or sector, and that that will happen purely on the basis of fairness and merit.

Also, we should promote companies that have a good record on gender diversity and flexible working options, which, for some people, is important. We have to work with the chairmen of FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 companies so that, as Baroness Bottomley put it, they look through the window when recruiting boards and not in the mirror. That is something that needs to be adjusted so that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald said, people do not recruit only those who are similar to them and who are already on boards but see the value of having new and different skills on boards.

Photo of Claire Perry Claire Perry Conservative, Devizes

My hon. Friend is doing a fantastic job of setting out many of the challenges that need to be overcome, and how we might do that. Does she agree, though, that perhaps there is another approach, which is to think about how we actually structure roles? It is inevitably the case that those of us with families end up being torn in our daily lives. I have always thought that job shares—potentially having a Cabinet position as a job share—would send a powerful signal, allow women to achieve their best and also recognise the complexity of many of our lives.

Photo of Mary Macleod Mary Macleod Conservative, Brentford and Isleworth

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. If there were job sharing in politics—there is no reason why the role of MP or Cabinet Minister could not involve a job share—we would show that we have made a real difference and made ground, and that there is no reason why that cannot happen in business.

The time has come to address the issue and really do something about it. It has been talked about for so long but very little has been done. The opportunities for business right now are too significant, at a time when we really need enterprise and growth, flourishing businesses, and more people creating their own business. We must do something about the issue. Women must be recruited to senior levels in business based on their merit and skills. Perhaps the definition and assessment of the skills that are required need closer attention, but I have no doubt that plenty of women with the right skills to take companies forward are waiting for the opportunity to do so. If we could let everyone, both men and women, aspire to be their best and achieve everything that they want, businesses across the country would flourish.

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith Conservative, Skipton and Ripon 9:52, 22 March 2011

I join this debate as a head-hunter—I declare that interest—who, until recently coming into the House, worked on senior-level executive search assignments for global organisations. I am the employer in an all-women company and the proud husband of a wife who has just set up a business as part of a job-share situation. I am also a colleague of some exceptional new MPs on both sides of the House, many of whom are women. It is unfortunate that more of my Opposition colleagues are not here today.

As a small business owner, I have spoken frequently about the avalanche of regulation and red tape that hit small businesses over the 13 years of the Labour Government, and the impact of such legislation globally on Britain’s competitive position in respect of inward investment compared with Hong Kong, Asia and other international locations. As a head-hunter, I saw that people were beginning to hire in those locations rather than the UK as a result of our employment law.

Therefore, I was pleased that Lord Davies chose not to advocate legislation in his report, “Women on boards”, which came out in February. I add that I could not find a copy of it in the House of Commons yesterday when I sought one—that was not a great indication of the importance of the topic.

When I first sat on the Government Benches last May, I realised that never in my life had I been involved in something so male. When I reflected on the companies for which I had recruited as a head-hunter, I thought again about the stark differences between those that had seriously taken an interest in diversity and put it at the top of the agenda of their organisations, and those that had not. When I listened to the debate on UN Women, which I thought was one of the most productive and positive debates in this House, I resolved to try to play my part on this issue. I compliment my hon. Friend Mrs Grant on securing this debate, and on all her work in this country and internationally—recently in Malaysia, I believe—on the issue.

Things have been improving, but progress is so slow. Statistics in the Lord Davies report show that 12.2% of directors of FTSE 100 companies are women, and that 7.3% of people on the boards of FTSE 250 companies are women. That is appalling. Our economy, which is on its knees, and which needs to use all its talents to get out of the current crisis and to deal with a competitive world, needs to address that. There are moral reasons as well: in a society that aspires to be equal, such statistics are not acceptable.

The best companies I have worked with in recruiting at senior level have not focused solely on women. Their big focus has been on diversity. They have been hard-wiring into their organisations the approach that it is not acceptable to come up with a shortlist of white males but instead it is better to come up with a diverse list of people and then select on merit. However, the number of organisations and companies that think that way is not as large as it should be, and we need to increase it over the next few years.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

Recently, the Monetary Policy Committee announced that it was recruiting another white man, and that it was absolutely delighted—as, indeed, we all are—with the extremely talented gentleman whom it had chosen. In small print at the end, as an afterthought, it said that only one of the 27 applicants was a woman, and that it wished that more women had applied. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be a good idea proactively to encourage more women to apply for senior roles?

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is a great deal of work to be done in the public sector as well as the private sector, but the Government now need to put significant pressure on the private sector, and not just on targets. One area I would advocate as well worth looking at is performance management generally in organisations. Can the Government do more to highlight those organisations that performance manage their staff and that look at things such as the approach that my hon. Friend Claire Perry suggested? Can we highlight, as well as company growth, those companies that manage their human resources positively?

Photo of Mary Macleod Mary Macleod Conservative, Brentford and Isleworth

Does my hon. Friend think that it is important to have real performance measures and that that should affect how people are remunerated? If they are not assessed on that, which might affect what they earn, people tend to forget about it. It is a nice-to-have, but there is no focus on it and nothing ever gets resolved. If people are actually measured on that and remunerated accordingly, something might change.

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The client that I worked with that did best in this area had such considerations hard-wired into compensation and promotion at all levels in the organisation, not just at board level. To get a pipeline of candidates for board positions, one has to work right down the organisation, at every level of management. In that organisation, the key question at every performance review was, “What diversity hiring have you done in the past six months?”

A relentless focus is required in the House and at every level of government. I am not convinced that having a unit on women and equality is the right way to go. We need this to be driven from the highest level in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and we need to showcase with awards and in every way possible those organisations that are doing the right thing.

Photo of Helen Grant Helen Grant Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

Could my hon. Friend say something about how head-hunters might be incentivised?

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

The role of head-hunters is important. The reason for stressing companies is that head-hunters are driven by their fees, and if the underlying companies are pushing them, that is when there is a change in the approach of the head-hunters. I was pleased that Lord Davies advocated a voluntary code for head-hunters, and some are doing great work in this area, but we will probably end up having to look more closely at this unregulated part of the business world, and push hard if they do not move quickly on their voluntary code.

On parental leave, child care and other matters that have been discussed this morning, I hope that the Government, with their moratorium on regulations for small businesses, will advocate a frank conversation between employers and female employees. My best employee relationship was with someone I could talk to about her plans for child care and family development, and we interweaved her talent and desire to build her family with the business’s needs. That employee was paid more and performed better than any other person in my company.

As well as the Government’s role, there is a strong role for Parliament. There is a strong argument for setting up a new Select Committee for the lifetime of this Parliament to focus on women and diversity. It could be wrapped up at the end of this Parliament, but in the meantime it could be used as a vehicle to demonstrate that parliamentarians in the class of 2010 will ensure that we move the issue on, drag companies in and question them. We want to ensure that the matter is nailed once and for all.

My concern and my message to business, whether head-hunters, global businesses or small businesses, is that if we are still here in 2015 having these arguments about the paltry number of women in the senior echelons of our businesses, it will be very difficult for people such as me, as a great supporter of less regulation and red tape, to stand up and say that there should not be legislation and intervention. This Parliament has an opportunity, as does business, to go for it, and to make a substantial change along the lines of what Lord Davies said, but it must be done now. We must get on with it.

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party 10:02, 22 March 2011

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Grant on securing this important debate. I also echo the excellent suggestion of my hon. Friend Julian Smith to introduce a Select Committee on women and diversity. The Minister will be listening carefully, and I shall make representations through the Liberal Democrats’ Business, Innovation and Skills parliamentary committee, which I co-chair.

We have heard excellent contributions this morning, and I need not reiterate why we must bother with women on boards. The aspiration of equal opportunities clearly does not work. It is 40 years since the Equal Employment Opportunity Act 1972, but still only 12.5% of members of FTSE 100 boards are women, and only five are run by women. Evidence shows that companies that increase the number of women in leadership positions outperform those that do not. Clearly, it is good for business to have more women.

On stereotyping, Martin Vander Weyer said in The Spectator on 26 February:

“Women are more risk-averse, less driven by raw competitive urges, and more likely to stay focused on generating steady returns; and those are precisely the qualities needed in non-executive directors to counterbalance the machismo of thrusting executives.”

Such stereotyping is dangerous. Not all women are like that, any more than all men are testosterone-fuelled risk-takers. We all have a bit of yin and a bit of yang in us, and it is important not to accept stereotypical opportunities.

Who is calling for change? Last year, the CBI called for a comply-or-explain policy for all businesses, and Viviane Reding, European Commissioner for Justice, is considering calling for quotas. She has started a five-year strategy to achieve 30% of women on boards by 2015 and 40% by 2020.

What are the problems? Many have been discussed this morning, and they include lack of flexibility, and linear advance patterns. My hon. Friend Mary Macleod talked about whole-life careers. We now have many careers during our lives, and the idea that one must go from one step to another clearly does not work for women or for men.

The male culture of people of the same sex, who perhaps went to the same school or who even belong to the same club, is harmful in achieving diversity of view and opinion and opening up boards to new ideas in all sorts of ways. On nominations committees, we heard an expert speech on the position that head-hunters are in. They may be eager to please, but I welcome the voluntary code that is being promoted by Lord Davies.

There are many things we can do to help—for example, flexible working. I am delighted that the Government are committed to flexible working not just for women and not just for men with children, but for everyone, because quality of work and life makes people better contributors to the work force. We must recognise people for their contribution, not for the number of hours their coat is on the peg at work. I call that “presentism”.

Collaborative leadership styles would be much more positive and helpful in some circumstances, as would effective succession planning. Women respond really well to coaching and mentoring, and we are often our own worst enemies, because we do not recognise how good we are. I had to have a stiff talking to by a friend before I accepted that I would be good enough to become a Member of Parliament. Talent must be recognised in organisations. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald referred to the leader of the Conservative party and said how well the Conservatives have done in bringing on women. One could argue about whether that constitutes positive discrimination, but the A list has certainly introduced a new generation of women MPs, and I assure you, Mr Caton, that there are no token women in this Chamber; they are all full-on, first-class Members of Parliament.

Photo of Mary Macleod Mary Macleod Conservative, Brentford and Isleworth

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Conservative party increased the number of its women MPs at the last general election partly because we had a leader overseeing the matter from the top? He promoted it and ensured that it was at the top of the agenda. The same must happen on boards. Does she agree that it is important for chairmen, chief executives and board members to say, “This is really important; we must do something about it.”? If that happens, something will be done?

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party

I could not agree more.

I want to finish by referring again to Lord Davies. I have spoken about head-hunters and the requirement on listed companies to disclose annually the proportion of women on boards, how many are senior executives and how many are in the work force generally. That would shame a lot of companies into looking at the poor representation of women.

Lord Davies leaves formal quotas as a future possibility, but states that there is overwhelming opposition to them. Well, there would be. To require someone to comply would challenge the stereotypical grey men in grey suits. Will we need quotas? The Davies challenge is for the make-up of boards to include 25% of women within four years. I believe that we will probably need to move towards some form of quota system if boards do not comply with that. This is the last chance saloon for the grey men in grey suits.

Photo of Martin Caton Martin Caton Labour, Gower

I will now call Andrea Leadsom, but I advise the Chamber that five hon. Members wish to speak and I want to start the winding-up speeches by 10.40 am. We need more brevity and more speakers.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire 10:11, 22 March 2011

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Grant on securing this important debate. I start by saying that I absolutely love men. I have two beautiful sons and a nigh-on perfect husband, and I assure the Chamber that this debate is not about bashing men; it is about trying to promote more good and fantastic women, and even—let us face it—more mediocre women. In any society not everybody can be fantastic but everyone can achieve a lot more than they currently do, and that particularly applies to women. Let us bring on more women of all shapes and sizes, whether mediocre or utterly brilliant.

I want to be a tiny bit selfish and talk about my story. I represent a classic tale of someone who has suffered from the determination of society to promote one type of structure. My parents divorced when I was very young, and for a long time it was just me, my two sisters and my mum. My mother taught us that, “The world does not owe you a living; you get on and you do it for yourself, my girl,” and that was very much the mantra with which I grew up. My sisters and I were all driven to do well in our careers, while still loving men and having a place for them in our hearts. You can rest assured, Mr Caton, that my two boys are clear that women are their equals and every bit as good as them.

I went on to jump out of my political science degree and into the City with huge enthusiasm. I worked 60 hours a week and did all the things that the men did—I worked shoulder to shoulder, neck and neck, competing with the best of them. At the age of 30, I discovered the wonderful thing that was being married and having a child. When I was eight months pregnant—nobody could accuse me of concealing the fact that I was about to have a baby—I was promoted to be the youngest senior executive that Barclays had ever had. That was a huge privilege and honour and I was thrilled. I was also, however, about to have a baby.

I went away and had about three minutes’ maternity leave. I worked until two weeks before the birth and came back after less than three months. I was desperate to get back into the job, but I was knocked for six by the whole experience. Within a year of trying to hold down such an enormously challenging job, I spoke to my boss about whether it would be possible to do it part time. I will not name names, but the answer was, “We’ve managed without many women directors until now, and we certainly don’t need part-time ones.” I struggled on for another year, but two miscarriages later I gave up, went away and thought, “Right, I’m just going to be a mum.” I had a second child and worked as the managing director of a hedge fund. It might seem rather ridiculous to go from working in a mainstream bank to becoming a senior person in a much smaller organisation, but somehow that worked better. It involved less process and more interpersonal relationships, and people talking to each other and understanding what was necessary to get the job done. Even though I had an important position, it was understood that I also had other priorities.

My story is indicative of what so many women go through. They start off neck and neck, fighting on equal terms, but then something happens—they start a family and their career is never the same again. The past 10 years of my career were happily spent in a funds management organisation at senior level, but with no prospects of promotion because I was working part time. I recognised that and was happy to pay the price because being a mum has always been the most important thing in my life. At the moment, however, that price must be paid, which I do not think is right. It holds women back, and many women give up altogether. A wealth of evidence suggests that women deliberately apply for more junior jobs that do not meet or challenge their skill sets, simply because they want the time and space to raise their family. That is a tragic waste of talent, and I believe that so much more could be done.

I do not plead for quotas. As my hon. Friend Julian Smith so eloquently said, employers should be encouraged to talk to their staff about what works for them. Such flexibility is not legislated for, but we need to get away from the situation where an employer can never ask someone if they are planning to have a baby, or whether they need to go to parents’ evening, because that is a taboo subject. Inadvertently, legislation and workers’ rights have made that an even more knotty topic, but if we could get away from that problem and arrive at a position where employers can talk to staff about their priorities and the things that they need to do, we would be in a much stronger position due to that mutual recognition.

In my office I employ a fantastic caseworker whose wife is about to have their second child. That is bearing down on us all, and we will accommodate his needs as a father. It is not just about women; it is about families. Accommodating the needs of families will go a long way towards improving the talent base in this country, and it will improve business across the board.

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Conservative, Great Yarmouth 10:17, 22 March 2011

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Grant on securing this debate. Ever since I left university, I have worked in business, and over the past 10 years I have run a couple of businesses. I was not sure what I, as a man, could bring to the debate, but when I spoke to my hon. Friend yesterday, it suddenly occurred to me that for 10 years I have run a business with about 80 staff of whom more than 90% are women. That had not occurred to me in the context of this debate, because we did not go out looking to recruit women or in any specific area. I fully agree with the comments about discrimination made earlier by my hon. Friends. Discrimination is not acceptable, but equally, we do not want positive discrimination.

I agree with my hon. Friend Julian Smith that we should not seek Government legislation that makes work more difficult for small and medium-sized enterprises. It is already difficult enough to employ more people under the existing regulations, which put companies off. The Government can set an ethos, however, and perhaps I can add my experiences to the debate, and say what it is we do that means we attract more women, and why that works so well.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a limited role for Government in terms of imposing rules. Does he agree that it is important to encourage mentoring? A lot of studies show that all people benefit from mentoring, and women do not get as much of that as possible. Organisations such as Enterprising Women do a lot to try to promote that aspect, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will mention it.

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Conservative, Great Yarmouth

The hon. Gentleman is right. People across the board benefit from mentoring, and men are sometimes afraid of saying, “Look, I need a bit of help.” Some women I have worked with do that better and have benefited from it. Women hold top positions across my business. As declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, my business involves a couple of schools and a nursery in which the head teachers are women. My administration team that runs the business is also made up of women. I have to say that they do a far better job now that I am not there interfering than was the case when I was. As an employer, we have appealed to women partly because primary education, on which we focus, tends to attract women. The tougher part of our job has been recruiting men into primary education, which is important because of balance.

When I was a council leader, I was always proud that I had a council group with very good balance. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald made the point that for any business or organisation, it is balance that makes it work. The balance of men and women in my council group was about 50:50. I was very proud of that and made a big point of it, because we achieved it before many authorities could get anywhere near it. We also had people from different walks of life and different business backgrounds. They ranged from a councillor of 18—the youngest councillor in the country—through to councillors in their 70s. It was the balance of members—members who agreed with one another and members who did not—that made it a more powerful team.

In my business, it is the balance that works, and flexible working also appeals. As we are an educational establishment, we have a slight advantage, in that we can advertise jobs for people who want to work only in term time to fit with their families. More men might consider that, too. This is a time when we are looking for more opportunities for men, and men are sometimes afraid of admitting that they want to spend more time with their families. I am sure that many of us in the Chamber would fall into that category, if we could. However, the ability to work in term time—the ability to work part-time hours—has meant that we have attracted women, which is benefiting our business. Our turnover of staff is extremely low. I think that in the 10 years that I ran the main administration team, we lost only one member of staff, who went on to a promotion elsewhere and has been very successful as a result. Business can consider those issues. This is about achieving a good balance across the board, with different types of input from people with different backgrounds, from men and women, from different age groups and from people with different professional backgrounds.

With regard to being flexible about work, Lorely Burt made the point about “coat peg hours”—a phrase that has stuck with me for many years. When I first qualified in law, I spent some time in a law firm and it always struck me as bizarre that the lawyers, particularly in the corporate law departments, seemed to feel that they had to be in the office from 8 am until 10 pm or later just to prove that they could be there. They were sitting in a square box, staring at a wall, doing work that they could easily have been doing at home, probably more productively.

Therefore, I have always taken a different view with people in my company, whether they are men or women. What interests me as a boss is that the work gets done and is of high quality. Unless there is a particular time demand, I am not interested in whether it is done at 8 am in an office or at 8 am in someone’s home. With the way communications work these days, businesses should think outside the box and be more open-minded about allowing staff, of whatever background and sex, to do their work to the best of their ability and not be so focused on “coat peg hours” and sitting in an office for the sake of being seen to be there. That in itself would be a big step forward for business.

If we can do nothing else in the next few years but encourage businesses to be more open about their working practices to allow people to be more flexible in that respect, we will see more women in business and certainly more production for business, without the need for legislation. I agree wholeheartedly with what hon. Members have said about how business has an opportunity now to make progress on this issue and to have more diversity across the board. Otherwise, we will end up having to look at more legislation, something which all of us who have been in business agree that business can do without.

Photo of Caroline Dinenage Caroline Dinenage Conservative, Gosport 10:23, 22 March 2011

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Grant on securing the debate, which is incredibly valuable. We have heard some excellent contributions and some interesting ideas, particularly the idea about job shares in the Cabinet.

I endorse the comments made by my hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom. Every mum faces huge dilemmas in her everyday working life. Productive women are those who feel that their family life is respected.

I wanted to take part in the debate to talk about the untapped potential of women as entrepreneurs. As a business owner myself, I have experienced at first hand the challenges that women face in starting their own companies. It is a world dominated by men. I have experienced for myself the days of walking into a trade show or a builders merchant and it being a bit like the saloon in the wild west where everyone stops what they are doing and turns round to look at the strange being that is among them. When four of the five dragons from “Dragons’ Den” are male and men such as Richard Branson and Alan Sugar fly the flag for UK entrepreneurship, it is not surprising that less than half of businesses are started by women. The stereotype of the ambitious, ruthless male entrepreneur needs to change.

Women can bring a huge amount to business and the economy. Worldwide, women have been shown to be successful and conscientious business leaders. In microfinance initiatives in Africa, 90% of female entrepreneurs plough the profit from their businesses back into the community, compared with only 50% of the men. In the UK, we have inspirational women such as Deborah Meaden and Tamara Mellon, who prove that it is possible for women to succeed in starting their own business. With women making more than 70% of household purchasing decisions, they surely know what the market wants. So why are those inspiring business women so few and far between?

Anyone starting a business will face daunting tasks. They must win over potential investors, persuade their family that it is worth it and, perhaps more importantly, persuade themselves that they are capable of succeeding. That is often the most insurmountable hurdle for women—summoning the self-confidence to take on that task and that risk.

I am involved in a fantastic project in my constituency of Gosport. It is called AWESOME—all women entrepreneurs supporting opportunity and motivating their expertise. It brings budding female entrepreneurs together to provide a network of support. Despite having brilliant ideas, they tend to hold themselves back, perhaps due to a fear of rejection. It is almost as though they regard their business idea being rejected by a potential customer as a rejection of themselves. They have difficulty separating themselves from their business idea.

Photo of Helen Grant Helen Grant Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

My hon. Friend makes a very important point about confidence. I agree that there is a fundamental confidence issue for us, which has come from years of sexism. Does my hon. Friend agree that if there were more female role models, that might help to correct the situation?

Photo of Caroline Dinenage Caroline Dinenage Conservative, Gosport

Absolutely. That is exactly right and it is the point that I was going to make and probably will in a second. Even when a woman succeeds, the challenges posed by approaching a bank or taking on greater responsibility sometimes prevent her from taking those steps and expanding the business to its full potential. I have seen so many women who have got to a certain stage and thought, “I don’t know whether I can take that final step,” and have then just stopped where they are. It is tragic to see that amazing potential go to waste, especially when our economy desperately needs the passion, hard work and vision of all entrepreneurs, but particularly female entrepreneurs. We just need to find a way of unlocking that talent.

By bringing female entrepreneurs together, as we have in Gosport, a network of moral support is created that allows a woman’s true passion for her business to shine though. Women say that they cannot do the hard sell. They say that that is the one thing they cannot do. They say, “I can’t do the hard sell. I can’t go into business.” However, when they are asked to talk about their businesses, their passion and enthusiasm for their product sells it for them. I could tell hon. Members about the number of times that I have walked out of a meeting, having subscribed to things that I did not even believe I needed—including a cat sitter when I do not even have a cat. They are incredible saleswomen, but they do not know that they are doing it.

Successful business women get involved in the group to which I am referring. They inspire confidence in those starting out and help to overcome the little barriers and difficulties that hold people back. We need to develop a network of such groups throughout the UK. They are self-started; they are not funded; and they are just self-help groups. We need to develop a network of such groups throughout the UK to ensure that in every constituency women are getting the support that they need.

Most importantly, we need to foster a culture of female leadership. We need to inspire and build self-confidence in people from a young age, whether that is done through debating clubs or programmes such as Young Enterprise. I did Young Enterprise at school. The business that we had was called Big Time and designed clocks—given my reputation for timekeeping, people find that quite surprising.

We also need to tap into the potential of the media and popular culture in promoting entrepreneurship. I visit many schools in my constituency, and nearly every time I ask the kids what they want to do when they leave school. Very rarely does a girl say to me either that she wants to start a business or that she has an entrepreneurial idea, yet so many want to be actresses, models and performers, which always staggers me. We need some more positive business role models in the media. After all, why should only Alan Sugar have an apprentice?

There will be great benefits for women and for the economy in promoting female-led business. It will bring fresh ideas and different qualities to the business world, while allowing women to set their own hours and agendas, which is what we are talking about. Entrepreneurship is not the preserve of men. It is our responsibility to ensure that women have the support and confidence to be entrepreneurs.

Photo of Anne Marie Morris Anne Marie Morris Conservative, Newton Abbot 10:29, 22 March 2011

Many of the points that I might have made have been made already, given that I am speaking towards the end of the debate, but perhaps I can dwell on a couple of them and give them a little more thought.

In an intervention earlier, I raised the idea of flexibility over career timing. The ability to start a career later—perhaps after having children—is often not open to those of us who work in the City or the professions. I agree with other speakers that that is perhaps not something that can be legislated for; rather, it is about creating the right environment. We need to look at the issue, however, because we will all live longer and need to work longer. This is not, therefore, just a women’s issue, but a cross-gender issue.

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Conservative, Great Yarmouth

I am sorry to delay my hon. Friend, but having had two children, my wife has gone back into work and successfully set up her own business, in exactly the way my hon. Friend has described. Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the issue is the need for us all to highlight the fact that such things can be done? More women, and indeed men, would then realise that being a certain age does not mean that they cannot achieve something and do something new. Highlighting such things would raise the profile of this issue in the way that my hon. Friend has.

Photo of Anne Marie Morris Anne Marie Morris Conservative, Newton Abbot

I absolutely agree. That is absolutely right. However, the real challenge is changing that culture.

My second point builds on the idea of confidence and experience. I welcome the idea of a Select Committee, which would be a first-class way of encouraging more thought on this issue. I was delighted to hear about the FTSE 100 mentoring programme, which sounds like a first-class initiative. The challenge is to have more role models and better mentoring programmes—I agree that they should be for men and women—and to help rebalance individuals, so that they have the broad suite of skills that we all need.

In that respect, perhaps I can dwell on men for a minute. If we look at what is happening in schools, we see the reverse of that. Boys’ results are not as good as girls’. Girls are tenacious and exam focused, and they are good at the process involved in passing exams. More and more women are going into the professions, and more women than men are going into the junior level—not the top level—of medicine and law. Leaving aside the leadership issue, we therefore also have a problem with the gender balance in those professions. We need to help men to go into those professions and to compete, just as we need to help women to go into the corporate world and compete there. The gender balance in the professions and corporate life is completely different.

One of the challenges facing us is that the skills that make people successful in the corporate world are not embedded at school, and I suspect that that may be an issue for the Secretary of State for Education. The issue is which skills we need people to gain at school to help us right the imbalance that I have described. Another challenge is to ensure that we have better integration between school and the workplace. One of my frustrations is that the children we talk to about the requirement to do work experience talk about it as if it were a tick-box exercise; there is no real sense of the role they will have in the workplace. Indeed, there is still a bit of a sense that the expected option is to stay at home.

Photo of Helen Grant Helen Grant Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

Does my hon. Friend agree that embedding enterprise awareness in school education would be helpful?

Photo of Anne Marie Morris Anne Marie Morris Conservative, Newton Abbot

That would be very helpful. In the same way that we have looked at the intellectual aspects of education, including issues such as the English baccalaureate, we are now looking at the skills aspects of education through the Wolf report. I agree that we need to develop a fundamental understanding of these issues among boys and girls at school. I do not have an answer as to how we can more effectively integrate business into education, but the issue absolutely needs to be resolved.

My third point relates to child support, which is a real issue. Partly, it is about money, but is also partly about culture, expectation and provision. A number of organisations are looking at crèches, part-time working and job sharing. However, it is one thing to look at introducing such provisions and to recognise that they are the right thing to do, but another thing to work out how to make them really effective. There is a bit of a tick-box approach, with people thinking that they have ticked the box because they have a crèche. In that respect, I was really struck by the comments of my hon. Friend Julian Smith. What is important is the ability to sit down and have a meaningful conversation about how we can work together and take on board the fact that, biologically speaking—certainly in our lifetimes—only women will have children. The question is how we make a different outlook more of a reality, and a Select Committee could probably sensibly spend some time looking at the issue.

When I was thinking about today’s debate, I remembered that we had a married man’s allowance in the old days, and I wonder whether a working mother’s allowance might be appropriate in the modern world. I put that out as a thought, and I appreciate that the piggy bank is a little empty at the minute, but such a proposal might be food for thought. We need a holistic approach to the fact that women have the babies. We need to integrate that and enable women to contribute in the workplace, which is crucial.

My final point relates to the corporate issue. I was impressed by what I read in the report to which a number of contributors have alluded. Diversity is certainly key. I agree that it would make a lot of sense to ensure that the numbers of women coming through an organisation are published in the accounts. Although I agree that we do not want more bureaucracy, such a process would not be a big issue for the top FTSE companies. We have information about the very senior women, because of the reports to Companies House, but we need to see the progression planning, and we will not get it without information about the women coming through the organisation. That is what I would describe as a nudge, rather than a push. I agree that legislation is not the answer, because we need to shape and encourage. Once organisations begin to see that there is a spotlight on the issue, it will begin to make a difference.

The real difference in corporate life will come, however, with the review of the governance code, which is important. How do we ensure that we are really talking about diversity, not trying to right the gender balance? We have to acknowledge that women want to be recognised for the different skills that we bring. I would almost like to see job descriptions that show that companies have thought through the different skills that they need and how roles might work slightly differently to encompass the broader range of skills that are available through employing women. When we look at the governance code, we could try to give some guidance on what might go into it. We are not talking just about men and women, but about the qualities of good management. If we can articulate that, it would be a good way forward. However, I am conscious of the time, so, on that note, I will conclude my contribution.

Photo of Nia Griffith Nia Griffith Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 10:39, 22 March 2011

I warmly congratulate Mrs Grant on her excellent opening speech and on securing the debate. I thank the many Members who have contributed in a positive way. There is much that we can agree on in terms of the need for encouragement, mentoring, sponsorship, role models and enterprise awareness, and those are very much the steps we need to take.

Ensuring that women can participate as fully as possible in business and enjoy full recognition of their abilities and potential is vital not only to promote a more equal and just society, but to make the best possible use of their skills to increase wealth creation and make a more prosperous society. Women are, of course, involved in many different types of business, from the self-employed woman who works just a few hours a week to the woman with the busy corner shop or the woman working in the very largest of companies. Many of the difficulties they face are not necessarily specific to women. Generalisations over the huge diversity of business can be misleading, and there are, of course, many excellent examples of good practice and success stories.

Over the past 30 years, women’s employment has significantly increased and women are making a greater financial contribution than ever to family incomes. Therefore, it is not surprising that more women’s jobs, particularly jobs in the service sector, have been affected in the current economic crisis than in previous recessions. With the expected job losses in the public sector likely to affect women disproportionately due to the high concentration of women in the public sector, it is important that the Government do more than simply hope that the private sector will grow. There needs to be a clear strategy for growth and encouragement for women to take up jobs in the private sector, particularly those who have not worked there previously.

During Labour’s time in office, we introduced measures that have supported women. We extended maternity leave and introduced paternity leave. We also introduced the right for parents and carers to request flexible working, and many speakers today have mentioned its importance. There is more to do to ensure that employees and employers are aware of the right to request flexible working. It can be daunting to be the first in a workplace to make the request. Many women are worried that such a request might harm their career prospects or make them look half-hearted about work. Properly managed, flexible working, such as changes in working hours to allow a parent to drop off children at school in the morning, can result in the mum or dad feeling much less stressed and better able to concentrate on their work. For some women, it can make the difference between continuing in work and having to leave a job.

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party

I agree with all the points that the hon. Lady has made. Is it not good that the Government are introducing flexible working for everyone, because that deals with the stigma of asking? Anyone can ask for flexible working, whether they are picking up their children or going to the golf course, so it is seen as part of the norm and not a condescension for someone because they happen to be a parent.

Photo of Nia Griffith Nia Griffith Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Indeed, the opportunity to have flexible working is extremely important. That is why it is particularly perturbing that news is coming through of an exemption for microbusinesses. That effectively denies employees in businesses with fewer than 10 employees the right to request flexible working. I question the Government’s rationale for making that exemption. They seem to be saying that denying employees that right will somehow stimulate growth in the economy.

If we cast our minds back a few years, we will remember that the Prime Minister, in his speech to the 2007 Conservative party conference, spoke about flexible working:

“Companies that have adopted this have found that they are able to grant the request in the vast majority of cases, they have actually found that productivity has gone up, profits have gone up, staff morale has gone up and keeping staff is easier.”

So what exactly has changed? Will the Minister explain what sort of analysis his Government have done that suggests that flexible working hampers growth? What economic impact assessment did his Government do before deciding the exemption for microbusinesses? How will this move impact on women in business? How is it compatible with the Prime Minister’s promise when he was in opposition that a Government whom he led would be the “most family friendly ever”?

The loss of the right to request flexible working will affect both men and women, but at the moment, it is likely to affect women far more widely than men. It will be yet another obstacle to women being able to combine work and family responsibilities. It might mean some women giving up work altogether, or it might deter women from seeking promotion. Was an equalities impact assessment undertaken on the exemption decision, and if not, why not? We are getting used to the Government breaking promises, and that action is usually accompanied by some sort of lame explanation, so I am curious to learn how denying employees the right to request flexible working will stimulate growth in the economy. To most people, it just looks like a backwards step.

When in office, the Labour Government introduced the Equality Act 2010, which not only streamlined the law by replacing nine major pieces of legislation and around 100 statutory instruments with a single Act, but introduced measures to create a more level playing field and make life fairer for women. Those measures include requiring gender pay reports, using public procurement to improve equality, extending the use of positive action in the workplace, and protecting carers from discrimination—although that, of course, applies equally to men and women, the reality is that women are more likely to be carers. Can the Minister confirm that his Government will implement in full all the measures in the 2010 Act?

We, on the Opposition Benches, welcome the work undertaken by Lord Davies of Abersoch in producing the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills report, “Women on Boards”. In particular, we welcome his recommendations that UK-listed companies in the FTSE 100 aim for a minimum of 25% female board member representation by 2015, that FTSE 350 companies set their own challenging targets to ensure that more talented and gifted women can get into top jobs in companies across the UK, and that those targets be set in the next six months and chief executives review the percentage of women they aim to have on their executive committees in 2013 and 2015.

The question is how we ensure that companies really make progress. The lesson from Norway, which is often quoted as having 40% women on boards, is that it does not happen simply by exhortation. That was tried first, but it took quotas to achieve the 40%. It is not nice to be accused of being on a board solely to make up a quota or to be used as a symbol that a company is addressing gender equality, but companies need to ask themselves exactly how appointments to boards are made. Does the process stand up to scrutiny? Is the best person for the post appointed? It may be that the best person for the post may not even be encouraged to apply. I hope that the recommendations in the report will make companies look very carefully at the whole pattern of promotion within the organisation, as many hon. Members have suggested, and identify whether there are factors, such as particular types of socialising after work, which tend to exclude women. It may be that much more subtle forces are at work, which amount more or less to that well documented tendency to select people like oneself.

What exactly will the Government do to ensure that the recommendations in Lord Davies’s report are fully implemented? Will the Government require companies to disclose each year the proportion of women on boards and in senior executive positions, and the proportion of female employees in the whole organisation, as recommended by Lord Davies? Will the Government insist on the disclosure of meaningful information about the company’s appointment process, as recommend by Lord Davies? How will the Government take forward the recommendation that a

“combination of entrepreneurs, existing providers and individuals needs to come together to consolidate and improve the provision of training and development for potential board members”?

The situation of part-timers needs particular attention. Some women find that they need to go part-time to combine work and a family. Other women would like to work part time, but are afraid of the consequences of doing so, knowing that too often going part time will set them back a long way in the pecking order. I have employed women part-timers, and have always found that their attitude to work is anything but part time. They invariably give over and above what is required for the hours they work. We need companies to take a serious look at how they deal with employees, largely women, who are working fewer hours than the full working week. Are they included in decision-making meetings? Are they encouraged to further their careers and seek promotion while remaining part time? Are they given training opportunities? Are they allowed to work part time only if they can find a person with whom to job share to replicate the exact pattern of a full-time post? Is part-time working considered appropriate only in the lower ranks of the company?

What is happening in other countries? In Spain, gender equity laws passed in 2007 obliged IBEX 35 firms to get a minimum of 40% women on boards in eight years. France passed a Bill applying a 40% quota for female directors by 2016. In Germany, the Justice Minister has threatened legislation if boards do not achieve a better balance in the next 12 months. Can the UK also move forward and can that be done without introducing quotas? Will the Government give companies sufficient encouragement to make the necessary changes voluntarily or will we find ourselves back here in two, three or four years’ time ruing the lack of progress?

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills 10:49, 22 March 2011

This has been an excellent debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Grant on securing it. We heard some powerful speeches, in which Members showed their experience and knowledge of the matter.

One of the key things mentioned by my hon. Friend, which was picked up by others, is that it is not only about equality but about business performance. I shall stress that aspect because I believe that the issue is about growth. We have the Chancellor’s Budget tomorrow. I believe that the Budget and other such measures are aimed at improving corporate performance and thus the performance of the wider economy.

My hon. Friend spoke of the extra benefits and skills that women bring to the boards of our great companies—their attitude to risk, how they manage employees and how they think about customers. She was right to say that the studies cited in Lord Davies of Abersoch’s report and elsewhere are unequivocal on the subject. The evidence is unambiguous that having more women on boards improves corporate performance.

The debate focused on the leadership of women on boards, following Lord Davies’ report. It was good to see such widespread welcome for his report. We also heard about practical support for women and families in the workplace and about supporting women entrepreneurs. I shall try to cover all those aspects. Before doing so, however, I make two further comments on my hon. Friend’s speech.

First, my hon. Friend reminded us of the Prime Minister’s aspiration for a third of Ministers to be female by 2015. Her speech may be an early suggestion that she is heading for promotion. Secondly, she made the important point that men need to listen to women in this debate. One of my favourite books when reading on the subject at university was a book about men and women in conversation called “You just don’t understand me” by Deborah Tannen, a socio-linguist. Listening to each other, particularly across sectors, is most important. We need to understand each other.

It is not only about listening in this debate, as we try to improve business and Government performance on the matter, but about putting that message across in the workplace, with employers and employees listening to each other and having grown-up, adult conversations. Indeed, many of the concerns that lie behind what was said this morning can be addressed in a way that does not require legislation or regulation. My hon. Friend spoke well and to the point.

Many Members spoke of legislation and non-legislation, and it is important that we realise the power of the nudge—the power of the non-legislative approach. That is one reason why I was keen to publish what has been called the employers charter. It sets out what employers can do under current legislation, and gives examples of the sort of conversation that employers are allowed to have with their employees—for example, about maternity leave and workers’ plans. It is important that we change some people’s perceptions about employers. Actually, employers have rights if they behave reasonably, and they can therefore work productively with their employees.

Right-to-request legislation, which was mentioned today, is a sort of nudge. It is about enabling employers and employees to have a conversation about flexible working. I have some concerns about the way in which the previous Government implemented right-to-request legislation. They took a prescriptive approach, and some employers find it rather regulatory and over the top. However, the Government are committed to right-to-request legislation. We will consult on it in due course. As I made clear in a written statement—

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

In a moment, but first I want to reply to my hon. Friend. The hon. Lady may want to intervene if she does not like my answer.

When we consult on extending the right-to-request legislation to all employees, we will also consult on whether there should be an exemption for micro-businesses. That may be appropriate because conversations are more easily had in small businesses. As my hon. Friend Julian Smith said, by and large smaller firms are better at having such conversations than larger companies. We will listen to people when we consult; the hon. Lady may believe too much of what she reads in the papers.

Photo of Nia Griffith Nia Griffith Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

The question is whether people have the right to request flexible working. As everyone who has spoken today has been very much in favour of the right to request it, and as no one is obliging anybody to grant it, what is the difficulty with insisting that micro-businesses do the same as every other business?

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

The hon. Lady anticipates our consultation document. I believe that we will get the balance right, and better than the previous Government did; their approach was over-prescriptive. Indeed, that points out one of the differences between the two parties. I regret to say that for the vast majority of this debate, the hon. Lady was the only Labour Member here, but the Labour Government seemed often to think that the only way to secure progress in this area was through regulation and legislation. Sometimes that is needed, but it is often not necessary. For example, the employee engagement taskforce led by David MacLeod and Nita Clarke, which is business-led and is trying to promote best practice in employee engagement, and the employers charter that I mentioned earlier both take a non-legislative approach, and that can have a big impact.

Other questions raised this morning relate to the wider debate, particularly on how to take forward Lord Davies’ report. That report focuses not only on Government but on companies, their chairmen and chief executives and on the head-hunting industry. However, it recommends how the Government should ask quoted companies to report on their performance on this matter. We will be publishing proposals on improving narrative reporting following our consultation—the document was published in July 2010—and that issue will be included. I assure hon. Members that the Government strongly welcome the report, which paves the way to massive improvements in this important matter, on which the previous Government did little.

Nia Griffith asked whether the Government were taking forward measures in the Equality Act 2010, but she may have missed the fact that most of its provisions were brought into force on 1 October 2010. We have concerns about one or two areas, particularly to do with section 78, which provides for mandatory reporting on gender equality, and we are working with business to see whether we can take a voluntary approach, which we think is right. While we engage with business on that matter and try for a voluntary approach, we will not commence, amend or repeal section 78.

Another matter raised by the hon. Lady was that child care is inadequate and often unaffordable. I am proud to say that, in the spending review, the Government did not merely maintain spending on that but increased the opportunity for child care, particularly for the young of deprived families. Our commitment in that area is strong.

That brings me to the debate about maternity leave, paternity leave and parental leave. We will be consulting on that later this year. We already have a lot of legislation on the matter, but it does not work terribly well. It is inflexible, gender-biased and it does not work with the grain of many companies. Our consultation paper will take forward the coalition agreement, and I believe that we can achieve a win-win by making things more flexible for employees and employers. We want them to work better together to ensure that we have more family-friendly workplaces, but that it does not come at a cost for employers.

It has been an excellent debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald. I believe that the House could play a critical role. I do not know whether we could go for the Select Committee option put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon, but I am sure that he will want to raise the matter with the Leader of the House. It certainly received support this morning.