[Mr andrew Turner in the Chair] — Women (Global Economy)

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 26 June 2012.

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

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West 9:30, 26 June 2012

It is a pleasure, Mr Turner, to serve under your stewardship today. Today’s debate is on women in the global economy. It is true to say that women now drive the world economy. Globally, they control £20 trillion of annual consumer spending, and that could climb as high as £28 trillion by 2015. Their £13 trillion in total yearly earnings could reach £18 trillion in the same period. In aggregate, women represent a growth market more than twice as big as China and India combined. Given those sums, it would be foolish to underestimate that economic force.

Carol Bagnold, HSBC’s regional commercial director for London, said:

“The female economy is hugely important for the UK and globally in terms of the international stage. Wealth is shifting, and the scale of contribution from women in both the business and consumer world is growing.

The States have recognised this with a plot of research done. In the UK the statistics show the same opportunity and we need to grasp this. 60% of personal wealth will sit with females by 2025, 37% of start-ups are now female owned, within the corporate world there” is a

“growing number of females controlling the finances.”

Women are now the largest emerging economy. British women in their early 20s already earn 3.6% more than men of the same age. Women in full-time work are seeing their wages grow at more than twice the rate of men’s, and if that growth continues the average pay of women in the UK will overtake men’s by 2020.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend’s flow so early in her speech. Does she agree that those figures show that there is no need for politically correct positive discrimination, quotas or targets, because women are more than capable of competing on equal terms with men, and that we should focus on jobs and opportunities being given on merit alone?

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West

I agree with half of what my hon. Friend says. We are taking significant steps forward, and I will refer to various women and business executives who make similar comments, but they include the caveat that different sorts of support are essential for women to enable them to achieve the positions they want, and to continue their jobs and professional advancement through a complex cycle, because women are the carers and nurturers in society.

In the UK, 700,000 businesses are female-owned and estimated turnover in 2011 was £130 billion according to the International Centre for Entrepreneurship. For the first time, there are more young female millionaires than young male millionaires, so women are becoming wealthier younger. It seems that women are now truly an unstoppable economic force. However, in tandem with those positive statistics, is the fact that although women may be earning more when younger, things change dramatically in their 30s when they have families. Between the ages of 40 and 49, there is a significant difference—about £3—in the hourly rate of women and men of the same working age.

We are often told that if women set up businesses at the same rate as men, there would be 150,000 new starts a year. As well as that, if we increased women’s participation in the workplace, we could add another £15 billion to £22 billion to the UK economy. We are also told that it will take another 70 years to achieve gender balance in the boardroom, such is the state of affairs there. Both sets of statistics are true, but neither does justice to the full role that women play globally.

Academics talk of women’s achievements reaching a plateau after a high point pre-2000 when a diverse raft of ground-breaking women took to the national and international stage. In this House in 1979, Margaret Thatcher became the first and only female Prime Minister. Elizabeth Butler-Sloss was appointed the first woman law lord in 1988. Stella Rimington was appointed the first female head of MI5 in 1992, and Debbie Moore was the first woman to establish a public limited company in 1984.

The rapid rise of women to leadership roles faltered as we approached the 21st century. Martin, Warren-Smith, Scott and Roper commented on the alarming lack of progress, and Vanhala stated that there has not been a significant increase since the early 1990s. That prompted Broadbent and Kirkham to write:

“after a promising start why aren’t women moving on, even in ‘feminised’ professions such as accountancy”.

In their book, “Through the Labyrinth”, Eagly and Carli wrote about the distinct lack of women in powerful roles. However, others, including Broadridge, Broadbent and Kirkham are now asking whether we have reached a pivotal point in the advancement of women in leadership, and suggesting that to deliver the next level of progress a new understanding of female leadership might be required.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I am sure that my hon. Friend is too modest to mention it, but I commend her work with her book “If Chloe Can”, and the magazine that she set up and has delivered to thousands of schoolgirls throughout the country in scores of schools. She turned it into a play, and what she has achieved is remarkable. Does she agree that role models are crucial, and that women and other people can achieve their ambitions, whatever their background, if they have other people’s paths and examples to follow?

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. I do indeed believe that, and I am not the only one. A huge body of work has been done on that. Ofsted did a report last year, and this year Girlguiding UK did a report on the importance of role models. I came to the same conclusion after 10 years of research on the Genda Agenda, and in the Ideopolis report and the Merseyside Entrepreneurship Commission. I originally sought to look specifically at Merseyside where evidence unfortunately showed that the statistics for girls claiming benefit were double the national average, but for those setting up in business they were half the national average. That was not because of the academic qualifications they did or did not have, not because they did not have drive and determination, and not because they did not have the wherewithal; it was purely because of a lack of role models. If girls do not know what opportunities are out there, they cannot follow a path and achieve.

If I wanted to make a chocolate cake, I would not try to fathom out how much butter, flour and chocolate I would need. I would go to a recipe book, or follow the recipe of someone who had got it right. If I then wanted to tweak and perfect it with extra chocolate flakes and buttons, I would. In the same way, I teach young girls and older girls that there is a path that they can follow, and show them the raw ingredients that they need to achieve.

Another positive comment I always make to young girls from all backgrounds—this is key—is that when I did an academic qualitative and quantitative study of the top 100 women in the world from all backgrounds, the determining factors were not who someone was related to, or what academic qualifications they had. Personality and character traits determined their future. Being persistent, determined, consistent, a good team player, optimistic, and able to find a way of doing things even when hurdles were put in the way were the key determining factors for whether people achieved. That was a long answer, but it encapsulates 10 years’ work.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I thought that at this point I would urge the Minister—if my hon. Friend wants to comment, she can—to do the following. It seems to me, having been one of the many colleagues who went to see the performance of “If Chloe Can” when it was turned into a play and who also saw the production in Speaker’s House, that if the Government and the Minister really want to do something useful, giving some support and funding to allow that to go around the country as my hon. Friend envisages would be far more worth while than just talking about these things.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West

I thank my hon. Friend very much. I would never have been so bold as to make such a plea, but as he has, on my behalf, I shall endorse it thoroughly.

I argue not only that women have reached a pivotal point, but that we need to understand and ensure that we in the broader sense—all of society—support the complex female life cycle. I am talking about the life cycle of a woman as mother, carer and nurturer. We also need to understand how those biological and atavistic needs drive, motivate and influence women’s choices. Women’s natural predisposition to be carers and nurturers regularly dictates the style and type of job that they do, the type of business that they establish and the choice of hours worked in order to fit around the needs of their family. Perhaps targets for the extra number of businesses that women should set up, how much extra they could add to the economy or how great a percentage could be on a board are artificial and too simplistic a range of targets and do not take into account innate human desires.

As we look to the global stage and look at businesses, we are noticing that there has been a change from a hierarchical structure in business and organisations to a flatter one. Executive leaders are seeing and feeling that, but is everyone else convinced? Targets are not enough. They do not work sustainably and are not as effective as they need to be. We can look to other countries. In China, the Philippines and Thailand, things are very balanced. In Japan, that is not the case. There, women take only 6% of the top jobs. We have to look at the cultural effects. The McKinsey study in Europe showed a much improved gender balance. In China, 70% of women are in work, but India is far behind, with 35%. Again, that shows the cultural significance and difference.

Eve Baldwin, the global human resources director for Unilever, says that she has noticed that 50% of entry-level positions are taken by women, but 80% of promotions go to men. Why are we still not landing job promotions? It seems that organisations still prefer a male style. Perhaps there is still a lack of acceptance of different styles. Perhaps organisations do not appreciate the different dimensions and character types that women can bring to the business world. That needs to be fixed internally.

Photo of Anna Soubry Anna Soubry Conservative, Broxtowe

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the very thoughtful and extremely well researched speech that she is giving. Does she agree that one reason why women are not progressing in the way that we would all obviously like them to progress is that for many there is an absolute tension between wanting to have and rear a family and, at the same time, wanting to nurture a career? We have not resolved that tension yet. One reason why we have not resolved it is the cost of child care, which of course went up under the previous Administration. The current Government must address that in a significant way if women at all levels are to make progress at work.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West

That was a very pertinent point and well made. Child care is key and needs to be addressed in many ways. It is not just a question of costing it out and paying for it. There could be tax incentives. There could be tax reliefs. We could perhaps start with just women setting up in business or look to help people on the new enterprise allowance. Obviously there will be budget constraints, but we have to think smarter. We have to think about how we will use Government money, but we also have to facilitate women so that they can add to the economy, because a woman’s life is, as we have stated, a complex life. The desire to have children is one of the most basic desires and needs to be fulfilled.

Photo of Anna Soubry Anna Soubry Conservative, Broxtowe

One change that has occurred in recent times is that the number of child minders has gone down—in my view, because of over-regulation. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must ensure that there is less regulation to enable more people to act as child minders? That would reduce the costs of child care and be much more convenient to a number of women, especially those who do not have the money available to them to put their child in a nursery, to employ a nanny or to use some other rather expensive means of looking after their children.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West

Absolutely. That is a point well made. I will be raising those issues at the end of my speech so that the Minister can take them forward and see what we can do. We believe in market forces and fairness. Obviously, if there are more people prepared to do child minding as a job and support other people, that should bring the costs down. We have to ask why the costs have risen so dramatically and therefore limited women in what they can do. They have to put their ambitions on hold while they look after their family.

As well as considering the support provided and the size and shape of business, we must examine lifelong learning. We must examine education for girls. Helen Fraser, chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust, said:

“We are living in a time of change and flux and it’s almost impossible to predict what the eventual outcome will be. What we can and must do is prepare our young people, and for the certainty of change, ensure they have the skills and attitudes they will need to survive and thrive, and help them (young women especially) develop the resilience to overcome setbacks, whatever happens.

The idea that your education finishes when you leave school or university no longer holds true—today’s young people can expect to learn and re-learn throughout their lives. Additional qualifications, second and even third degrees are likely to become more commonplace as people re-invent themselves and re-energise their careers. And if education is no longer linked only to the early stages in life—to childhood and youth—then developing attitudes that characterise successful learners is just as important as developing knowledge. Learning how to learn, developing physical and mental discipline, being open and engaged with the world, cultivating a true love of learning—these matter as much as knowing facts and figures and formulae.”

The reason why I asked Helen Fraser to contribute a quote to this important debate was not just—I say “just” lightly—that she is chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust, a group of girls’ schools. Before that, she was managing director of a global company, Penguin Books. Therefore I felt that she had seen both sides of the coin. She has been a mum and wife and a successful business woman, and now is a business woman again in the world of education.

Following on from that, Professor Lesley Yellowlees, president-elect of the Royal Society of Chemistry—the first woman to be elected president in its 171-year history—says:

The UK needs a highly skilled workforce, particularly if we are going to make headway in these bleak economic times. More and more young women are studying science at university to the point where we have a near 50-50 balance in chemistry.

The problem today is not women entering science, but keeping them there and retaining all those skills and talent that can and does make a massive contribution to the global economy.

For the chemical sciences, that contribution is worth £258 billion, or 21 per cent, to the country’s GDP, according to an independent report the RSC commissioned in 2010.

Women are playing a greater role in science than ever before—but we can do much more. This is just one of the areas I will be focusing on as I begin my two-year term next month as the first female President of the Royal Society of Chemistry.”

She says that she will make helping women not just to get into science but to stay there a key issue. She will be doing that through role models.

Maxine Benson, a co-founder of everywoman, says:

“GenderDiversity isn’t just a nice thing to have; it is the solution to a business loss. Businesses with fewer women on the board make 42% lower return on sales, 66% lower return on” investment

“capital and 53% lower return on equity. The differing attitudes to risk and governance means that having a female board member cuts your company’s chances of going bust by up to 20%.

The retention and promotion of talented women at senior levels is one of the simplest, most…effective and easiest methods of dramatically improving your business’s bottom line.”

All those things must be taken into account. People must appreciate and understand the differences between men and women, embrace those differences and bring them onboard, because only then will they truly understand the benefit of having more women in key positions.

I want to move away from the business world to look at global leaders, because they are key. Women are coming of age as global leaders. Things are shifting. We have gone into a financially chaotic period, and women are coming through in places experiencing war-torn upheaval. We cannot talk about female leaders and understand them, or have today’s debate, without referring to Nobel prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, who spoke in Parliament last week. She was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1991 for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights. She is one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades and has become an important symbol in the struggle against oppression. The Nobel committee gave her the peace prize for her unflagging efforts and to show its support for the many people throughout the world striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation in peaceful times.

We also need to refer to the latest Noble peace prize, which went jointly to three women: Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; Liberian peace advocate, Leymah Gbowee; and Tawakkol Karman, a leading figure in the Yemeni pro-democracy movement. They were all recognised

“for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”.

I would argue that women’s mothering and nurturing predisposition helps in non-violent struggles, with co-operation, consensual understanding and empathy; perhaps, like a mother for a child, there is the same love for supporters and country, and they could take their country and the struggle of the nation to a new phase of development.

Professor Parveen Kumar, the president of the Royal Society of Medicine, professor of medicine and education at Barts in London and the leading light in global health, wrote the definitive medical text book used all round the world, including Asia and Africa. She is trying to take on new technology to distribute it as cheaply as possible to emerging nations. She set in motion active support and engagement with royal society members—all 23,000—so that they could help and support some of the most needy people in the world.

She analysed the health statistics on child and infant mortality, and, with Carolyn Miller, chief executive of the international health charity, Merlin, assisted Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to raise health standards, provide books, support and a new wing of a hospital, and to teach, not only doctors, but, this year, the first cohort of midwifery qualifications. As Professor Kumar and Carolyn Miller say, helping women globally is key—if you help and educate a women, you help the family, the child and the next generation.

If we put together a picture of women globally, we see that it is not only about finance, the support that they give others or education. They are not necessarily driven by high status or the turnover of a business, but appear to be a cohesive glue. A woman will be the mother of every child who ever populates the earth. Through that, they seem to act more laterally and less hierarchically. They seem to reach out to fill the vacuum that might be left in society.

I want to talk about global communicators.

Photo of Anna Soubry Anna Soubry Conservative, Broxtowe

Before my hon. Friend moves on to the next subject, would she agree with me about charities? I am slightly connected with Women for Women, which raises a considerable amount of money to invest in women in what are often war-torn countries. It recognises that one way to restore broken lives and families, including in areas of strife, is to empower and enable women to work and rebuild families. That charitable work is to be commended.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West

Absolutely, it is indeed. We can see such efforts in many organisations, of which that is one, where women come together to build lives, help co-operation and make the world a better place, as they perceive it, for their children and the next generation. Part of that message has to be about communication; getting the story to the outside world and telling the tales of women that might not otherwise be heard can help.

The formidable Christina Lamb is possibly one of our best war journalists. She said that she always thought that she would help people, perhaps providing assistance and support as a doctor, but she turned out to be a journalist, travelling the world providing a voice for particularly women, families and children, who would not otherwise have one. In doing so, she has told their stories around the globe and got them the medical help, the medicine and the support and protection that they required. In her own way, she has been a healer.

I make special reference to Boni Sones, who set up Parliamentary Radio to link women and women MPs not only in the UK but around the globe. She says:

“Women journalists in the UK and women across party in the British Parliament have been using new technology and new journalistic practices to talk about the issues they have been championing to improve the lives of the women and families they represent in their constituencies. They are now trying, via BlackBerry applications to ‘link in’ women in Parliaments across the Globe to their web based radio station so that they then broadcast stories” and success stories, not only about them, but about other women across the globe. She continues:

The World is indeed becoming ‘flat’ as new media allows new connections like this one to take place. Previously broadcasters required FM frequencies and line-bookings, now the internet and mobile phones like the BlackBerry device can allow programme makers to broadcast all over the World.”

Boni is a visionary. She set up that project in Parliament, but she is seeking to make global links to tell stories across the world.

It is important to celebrate women’s achievements. That in itself can provide role models, allowing others to see what has been achieved and what women, too, could achieve. I want to talk specifically about Merseyside women of the year. The award is ten years old this year, and the ceremony will take place on Friday. It began as a very small event looking at women in business, but grew and grew with the formidable courage of the ladies involved and did not remain just about business.

I am struck by the various avenues and fields that the award has covered: charity, learning, support and media. Past winners include Claire Lara, the chef; Lisa Collins, the business woman; Pauline Daniels, the stand-up comedian; Kim Cattrall, the actress—yes, she came from Merseyside too—Edwina Currie; and Carla Lane. A plethora of women have won the award, which is supported by three incredible women: Jean Gadsby, Ellen Kerr and Elaine Owen, who have come together and supported the award. This year—the 10th year—they are taking it to the next level. They want to support and fund women. They are putting a bursary together to do that for the next generation of women.

There are things to be asked of the Government. I have spoken at length about the various things that women do and achieve but, as has been touched on, we need role models for women—visible signs of female accomplishment. Something simple that Boni Sones wanted was pictures of women, even in Parliament, or in the National gallery, celebrating success. The images of women constantly before us do not show them in successful, powerful roles, but in weaker, consumer or sexualised roles. A few more paintings would seem a meagre request.

Photo of Anna Soubry Anna Soubry Conservative, Broxtowe

Is not that one of the peculiarities and tensions of the issue? Speaking—forgive me, Mr Turner—as an old feminist, I suggest that one of the ironies of the feminist movement is that in this day and age arguably there is even more pressure on young women to aspire to a certain body image. Equally, we have a terrible celebrity culture. We could have good, strong role models for women, but young women aspire to what the media too often put forward. That does not advance women in society. In many ways it has taken us back decades.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West

I would completely agree, as would many young girls. The 2010 survey by Girlguiding UK examined what was forming girls’ attitudes to work and what was driving and motivating them to take up jobs. It was what they saw in the media; and usually the jobs were powerless ones. In 2010, it was still a major ambition of girls to be a hairdresser, rather than an engineer, because that was what they saw. The ambition was to be a beautician rather than a scientist, to be a WAG rather than a lawyer, to be someone’s other half rather than to achieve in their own right.

Photo of Anna Soubry Anna Soubry Conservative, Broxtowe

Does my hon. Friend agree that, despite the fact that she received a lot of criticism, there was much merit in the speech by Cherie Blair last week? She identified a problem with the aspirations of too many young women, who aim just to marry a rich man, and see that as the be-all and end-all of their lives. In the same way, unfortunately, the only aspiration of a number of very young women in our society is still to be a mother. That is why we have such a high teenage pregnancy rate. They see nothing else in their lives besides having a baby.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West

When I go round schools, one of the key things that I say is “What would you like to achieve for yourself? It is great if you get the perfect partner and have children. Those are other things, and part of your life; but what are you doing with your life? How will you shape and craft it? Should your husband leave you, what will you do? When your kids eventually grow up, as they do—and there is a massive vacuum in a mother’s life when a child leaves—what will you do; and how can you fulfil your aim?” Sometimes, when I am speaking to 12 to 18-year-olds, that all seems so far away. Tomorrow seems far away. When I am speaking on a Monday, Friday night seems a long time away. Nevertheless, I try to make that point.

I hope that she will not mind my mentioning this story, but I always tell the girls I speak to about Debbie Moore. It is funny in hindsight; but so many things seem funny in hindsight. She was a successful model and at 19 married the man who would have been the love of her life, a photographer. She thought that was it; her life was perfect. She had peaked. Two years on, it was their second wedding anniversary. He went off to work and she waved him goodbye, knowing she had a magnificent celebration prepared for him when he came home that night. She waited, and he did not come home. The next morning he still did not. He had run away and dumped her for a younger model. She was only 21 and he had run off with a 19-year-old girl.

She suffered turmoil, devastation and upset, of course, and through the stress a thyroid imbalance set in, so she ballooned, then lost weight. That was not conducive to a modelling career, because she would arrive at an interview one size, and arrive at the photo shoot another size. When she asked the doctors if there were potions or pills to help her, they said that there were not, but that possibly gentle exercise would suit her. She said, “I hate the gym, and I hate jogging. Oh, but I don’t mind dancing.” She took up dancing and learned more and more. From that beginning she set up the Pineapple dance studio and dance clothes range, and became the first woman to set up a public limited company. She always says that the best opportunities can come from the greatest adversity. It is a question of what people do with them. Who would think, she asks, that after all the devastation and upset, she would, many years after the event, thank the man who left her, because he made her a multi-millionairess? I try to emphasise to girls that the question is not what someone else can do for them, but what they can do for themselves.

A list of the percentage of women in business and in various careers shows that they account for only 22% of MPs, peers and Cabinet members. Women have 35% of senior civil service places; 9% of Supreme Court justices are women. They account for 45% of general practitioners, 31% of NHS consultants, and 19% of university professors. There is much that can be done to change that, but the question to ask is “What do you want to do; what do you need to fulfil in yourself? There are a plethora of jobs out there; what do you feel would fulfil your potential and aspirations?” To go back to the point made by my hon. Friend Anna Soubry, seeing women purely as glamorous, sexualised beings has many ramifications. If women are thought of only in visual terms, rather than in terms of what is in them, that takes away their power. That stunts their aspirations, because they do not see women in powerful positions; they see them only as an addition to someone else.

Chief Guide Gill Slocombe said:

“We believe that today’s young women have enormous potential to promote change at a local, national and international level. This belief is further backed up with the results of our Women in the Lead survey which showed that an amazing two thirds of award-winning women have previously been a Brownie, Guide or member of the Senior Section.

Therefore we call upon all those involved in public life to join us in ensuring that they play their role in providing opportunities to enable young women to exercise their power, make their voices heard and strengthen their role in the global economy.”

To return to what I ask of the Government, the issues are role models, visible signs of accomplishment, and child support, for women and children. Greater family and pre-family support and education is a key thing, so that, as early as possible, women fully understand the life-changing choice of whether to have a child. Other issues are support for women setting up businesses—women are nearly five times more likely to cite family reasons for setting up a career—and support for female-run businesses, although I do not exclude male-run businesses, which should have support too. Access to finance for business is also relevant to both males and females, but particularly to women, because usually they start off with much lower capitalisation. They have humbler aspirations and desires, and are more than happy to start off with less money. Equally, they take fewer gambles, so they will have done more research when they set up a business, and they ask for less money. We feel that more mentoring support is key.

I will close today with a quote from my colleague and good friend, Bettany Hughes, who is an award-winning historian and broadcaster, and a research fellow at King’s College London. She said:

“The oldest surviving 3D sculpture in the world, 40,000 years old and carved from the tusk of a woolly mammoth, is of a woman. For the next 40,000 years, close on 92% of all extant human figures are of the female form—telling us that when homo sapiens tried to work out what it was to be human, the female of the species was conspicuous not by her absence but by her presence. In this epoch human-kind invented religion, cities, farming, tools, philosophy, democracy…the list is endless. Archaeology and history show us that throughout this massive bulk of human experience—from 400,000 BC to around 400 AD—women have enjoyed substantial standing and influence and sway in society. Plato opined, ‘Nothing can be more absurd than the practice that prevails in our country of men and women not following the same pursuits with all their strength and with one mind, because when this happens, the state, instead of being a whole, is reduced to a half.’ How true. Why choose to live in the half world of Plato’s imagining when we can flourish in a full one?

The word Man comes from…‘Manu’ meaning mind or thought. Mankind is a global community not of humans with an excess of the Y chromosome, but of creatures who think. We, both man and woman, think best together. This is not a plea from 50% of the population—but a recommendation for all 100%. Both male and female can draw comfort from this truth—I think and therefore I am, a man.”

Photo of Anna Soubry Anna Soubry Conservative, Broxtowe 10:11, 26 June 2012

I congratulate my hon. Friend Esther McVey on securing this debate. As I have mentioned before, I support much of what she says. I also congratulate her on her careful thought, the construction of her speech and her considerable research.

I will not speak for long; unfortunately, I am sitting on the Defamation Bill, which starts at 10.30. I should not say “unfortunately”, because it is always a great pleasure to sit on a Public Bill Committee, but I will have to keep my comments short.

Obviously, I speak as a woman. I am an old feminist and the mother of two daughters, aged 20 and 21. All my life, I have been opposed to any form of stereotyping, whether it is based on gender, sexual preferences, colour of skin, race, religion or whatever.

Although I agree with so much of what my hon. Friend said, I just put into the mix a little bit of caution. I accept that as a woman, my biology means that there will be some natural urge or instinct to have a child. As a mother, therefore, I realise that many of us have mothering instincts. However, there is a danger of saying that all the great attributes of someone such as Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, come from the fact that she is a woman. I take the view that she has a steely determination, which is found in both women and men. Her nature to care and to make considerable self-sacrifice is not because she is a mother but because she is a great human being, and both men and women have those attributes. There is a danger if we say that women have a particular side of them that lends itself to the more nurturing and caring professions.

Those of us who have practised law will remember the days—I am certainly old enough to—when as young female barristers we were undoubtedly encouraged to practise in the family law division. There was an assumption that we would want to do so. When I first went to the Bar, more than 30 years ago, it was difficult for women to advance not only within the profession but at the criminal Bar because it was seen as a combative arena, which indeed it is, and not the sort of arena that women would want to engage in.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West

My role model was a woman called Rose Heilbron, who went to my school. She was the first woman to get a first in law from Liverpool, to get a first at Gray’s Inn and to do a murder trial. When the male criminal, who was up for murder, saw her, he said, “My God, I knew things were bad, but now I have seen who is representing me, I see things are worse.”

Rose’s desire to go into the law came from a desire to help other people. It was a case of, “There but for the grace of God go I”. She had been a refugee. Her desire to support others and to ensure that everybody had access to the law was what motivated her. Although I agree that women are not the only part of the population to have these caring, nurturing and mothering beliefs, many studies have linked those qualities with the fact that we give birth. They say that our biological differences are the key motivating factor for why women take up a job and pursue a profession. More than 80% of social enterprises involve women, and that is down to our biological differences.

Photo of Anna Soubry Anna Soubry Conservative, Broxtowe

I am extremely grateful for that intervention from my hon. Friend who has researched the matter and clearly knows a great deal more than me. Although I agree with much of what she says, I want to add a note of caution so that those who perhaps do not fully support the advancement of women or the feminist cause do not rely too much on our natural instincts as mothers, nurturers and carers to say, “That is all well and good and that is where you should stay.”

Let me return to the point I was making before my hon. Friend’s intervention. When I returned to the Bar, some 20 years ago, I was struck by how much its attitude had changed—not only to background, school, the colour of skin, race and religion, but to women. There had been a great advancement of women at the criminal Bar. We are now reaching the point when almost half of the people at the criminal Bar are women, which is to be celebrated. Women are just as capable as any man at either prosecuting or defending in criminal cases, however difficult that case may be.

I will not delay you for much longer, Mr Turner, but I want to reiterate this point about child care. There is a very real need, especially among those who are not particularly well paid, to return to the world of work. The reasons for that are often economic, but not always. This may not be understood by some men, but many women want to go back to work not just because they want to earn the money, but because they want the social side and the interaction that comes from it. At the moment, however, we have a profound problem in our country. A number of women, on finishing their maternity leave, look at the cost of returning to work and find that the amount of money that they will earn is the same as what they will have to expend on child care. We need to tackle that.

Finally, mentoring was mentioned by my hon. Friend. How right she was. Certainly at the Bar, there were mentoring schemes to help women. Mentoring is an admirable scheme and works especially well for women.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley 10:19, 26 June 2012

Thank you, Mr Turner, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Anna Soubry in this debate. She has to go off to a Public Bill Committee. I hope that you, Mr Turner, Kate Green, who is the shadow Minister for Equalities, the Minister for Equalities and my hon. Friend Esther McVey will all forgive me as I have to go off to a Select Committee soon, so I will be unable to stay for the wind-up speeches. I apologise in advance for that.

In all honesty, I was not intending to speak in this debate. When I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West speak, I was even less keen, given how much research she has done on this subject. She made a fantastic speech and clearly knows her stuff. I have not done any research at all, Mr Turner, so I would not want you to compare my speech with that of my hon. Friend, because it certainly will not compare. However, the things that she said have prompted me to make a few points.

I commend my hon. Friend because, as I said in one of my interventions, her work with “If Chloe Can” is truly inspirational to lots of girls. She attended a theatre production, when “If Chloe Can” made its debut in the west end, and saw a thousand schoolgirls from many deprived parts of London hugely excited, not only by the production by the National Youth Theatre—which I also compliment—but by seeing some fantastic women from all walks of life who she had persuaded to attend. Those women talked about their life stories and encouraged those girls to think they could achieve something with their lives and achieve their ambitions if they set out to do so, irrespective of their backgrounds. All that is inspirational.

The work that my hon. Friend has done in pursuing that aim is truly amazing. Lots of people in politics talk a good game, but I must say that there are not that many who go through the motions of doing something. She does not just talk about things; she goes out and does the things I have described, quietly getting on with it. She should be commended greatly for the work that she does. I say that even though she only half-agreed with my opening intervention, but I will overlook that fact for now.

I will talk about a couple of things. My hon. Friend talked about the pay gap between men and women in their late 30s and 40s, which contrasts with the situation when they are in their 20s. It struck me that there was something rather inevitable about that particular problem, and I am not entirely sure that anything can be done—or indeed, should be done—to address it.

If a man carries on working through his 20s and 30s, one hopes that he will progress in his job, whereas a woman may have made her own choice to leave work to have a child before coming back to work later. It would be bizarre if the woman came back on the same pay or higher pay than the man who had been slaving away for an extra 10 or 15 years in that particular company. It seems to me that some of these things, whether they are right or wrong, are simply inevitable and are not a matter for the Government to start interfering with. They simply reflect the inevitability of life.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Equalities)

I am always interested in hearing what the hon. Gentleman has to say on this subject. Although I understand the argument he is making about the impact of taking time out of the workplace, does he accept that one potential solution to the problem he describes is to share the time out of the workplace more equitably between fathers and mothers, and to take measures to promote that sharing of time away from work?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

The hon. Lady makes a fair point. The bit that I am not particularly convinced about is that even if we equalise the opportunities for men and women to take time off work to look after children, my guess—I am not an expert in these matters, but this is my guess—is that through nature women will be more likely to want to take that time off work than men. I could be completely wrong, but that is my guess. We can equalise the opportunity as much as possible, but I suspect that even if we did so, women would be much more likely to take maternity leave than men would be to take paternity leave.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

The hon. Lady may disagree and if the Government implement such a scheme, we will see what happens. I hope that, if the Government do so and what I say proves to be true, she will come back and acknowledge that that was the case, rather than sticking to her sort of feminist dogma, which is not really wedded to the real world.

However, I agree with some of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe made about child care and its regulation. We seem to have an obsession in this country with making every job in the world a job that someone needs a degree to do. One of the latest examples of that is childminding. When parents look for a childminder, the most important factor—it would certainly be the most important factor for me regarding my children—is that their children are happy and safe, and that they are in a happy and safe environment. Whether or not the childminder has a degree is of no consequence to me whatever.

The Government have to start trusting parents a lot more. Parents are perfectly capable of deciding who is a good childminder and who is not without the Government imposing unnecessary regulations on the child care sector and making people have increasingly large amounts of qualifications that are totally unnecessary. The Government should just let parents get on with choosing the right childminder for their children, which may end up being cheaper, thereby allowing women to return to work.

However, there is scope for helping children with child care. My starting point is that so many people in this country seem to have decided that they do not want to work that when people clearly want to work, the Government should be out there, giving them as much support as possible so that they can. If there are lots of women who would prefer to go out to work and who want to achieve something in life, there is a role for the Government in trying to make that process as easy as possible.

I should say in passing that I do not think that it is useful to frown on those women who want not to go out to work but to stay at home and bring up their children. They should be encouraged to do so and they should not be looked down on by others for making that choice. The issue is that we should help people to fulfil their ambitions and to make the choices that they want to make.

I also want to touch on maternity leave and the kinds of regulations that apply. I do not think that anybody objects to the principle of maternity leave, but we should be rather careful because lots of things that can be well meaning and that seem, on the face of it, to be a good thing for women can end up, in practical terms, being a barrier for women.

Whether people like it or not, and whether other hon. Members in this room want to acknowledge it or not, I suspect that there are still many people in businesses out there who look at a woman of a certain age, see how old they are—perhaps somebody in their late 20s, who has recently married—and think to themselves, “Hold on a minute. If I take this person on, the chances are that they will be leaving to have a child and I will be having a huge disruption to my business, and possibly a huge cost as well. I will find it very difficult to replace this person, particularly for a fixed period of time.”

As a result, that businessperson may not give that woman that particular opportunity, although otherwise they would have done. We have to guard against these well meaning schemes that are not actually providing opportunities for women, but providing barriers to women getting a job in the workplace. Before anyone runs away with the idea that it is just male employers who will think like that, I should say that I suspect that female employers are just as prone to make that kind of decision as male employers are.

We have got to look at certain companies. For my sins, before I entered Parliament I used to work for Asda. For a company such as Asda, regulations and obligations are meat and drink. Asda employs 140,000 people, so having people take time off for maternity leave is absolutely no problem at all. In fact, many companies of that size will make a point of offering enhanced employment terms as a way of attracting the best people to work for them, because they can afford to allow people to take time off.

But I ask you, Mr Turner, to bear in mind those companies that employ one or two people. If a small businessman employs two people and one person takes off an ever-increasing amount of time, that causes huge disruption to their business—there may not even be a successful business for that woman to go back to, given the disruption and cost incurred. Nobody objects to the Government’s wanting to introduce measures that genuinely help people, including women, in the workplace, but we should be very careful about going over the top in imposing too many onerous conditions on businesses that will end up having exactly the opposite outcome to the one intended.

If the Government want to help women in the global economy and help them to fulfil their potential, the way to do that is exactly the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West has been going about doing it, which is to provide people with role models and to show them how they can achieve their goals, irrespective of their background. It is to show them that even people who leave school with very few qualifications can achieve their goals if they have the right characteristics and the right determination to go about their lives. I urge the Government to do those encouraging things and not to go down a politically correct route with quotas and other such things.

All we want—all I want, certainly—is for people to be given jobs and opportunities on merit and merit alone. If we believe in true equality, surely we should be gender-blind; it should be irrelevant whether someone is male or female. I could not care less whether the board of a company has 95% men or 95% women. All we should care about is that they are the best people for the job and for the company. It will not advance women if the Government go down the route of having quotas for this and quotas for that and politically correct decision making; that will make people feel that women have got to where they are only through some situation that has been concocted to achieve a particular outcome. That does not do women any good; it does no one any favours. Everyone has to feel that everyone has got there on the same basis, and that basis should always be merit.

I commend what my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West has done in pursuing the agenda of merit and in allowing women to fulfil their ambitions and dreams, and I hope that the Government follow that model rather than trying to have some “get equal quick” scheme, which would not advance women at all but advance political correctness and build up huge resentment among the public. I will now allow the Front-Bench spokespeople to have their say. I apologise again for having to leave for my Select Committee.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Equalities) 10:31, 26 June 2012

It is a pleasure to participate in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Turner.

I congratulate Esther McVey on securing what has been an engrossing debate. She is absolutely right to set as her territory the celebration of the socio-economic achievements of women in this country and across the world. As I listened to her speech, I was struck by how much our shared experience as women unites us right across the world, in both developed and developing economies.

In the workplace, in business and in the family, in our role as caregivers and managers of the household and its finances, and in our role in our communities, women’s experience is the same right across the world. It is important to recognise that the structural barriers to women’s advancement in this country are different not in kind but in degree from those experienced by women in other economies, and that measures taken to dismantle them will have global applicability. It is absolutely right that we should seek to dismantle the barriers, for exactly the reasons that the hon. Member for Wirral West highlighted in quoting Plato, that proto-feminist—the personal fulfilment of women and men, and the benefits for our world and for society as a whole.

I want to highlight some structural issues, a number of which have not been mentioned in the debate but are important. The hon. Members for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) and for Shipley (Philip Davies), who unfortunately have had to leave the debate, raised some of these issues and contributed interestingly to the discussion.

Despite progress in women’s socio-economic position, which the hon. Member for Wirral West rightly highlighted, there is still a clear difference between the income made and assets held by women and men, although to some degree that is mitigated by cash transfer programmes, which are effective in supporting women’s financial positions and those of their children—if women have money, they spend it on their families. In many developing economies, there are still limitations on women’s property rights. It is important that we have strategies to address those economic, income and wealth inequalities, and that we keep up a clear line of sight on progress.

Several hon. Members rightly highlighted the importance of access to education as a route to well paid jobs. Across the world, women are typically in less secure, more vulnerable and less well-paid employment, often because they work in sectors of the economy in which pay and conditions are poorer. Education is clearly an important answer to that segregation and employment disadvantage, and it is key, therefore, that we look at whether our education system addresses that inherent segregation.

The hon. Member for Wirral West pointed to the progress in the participation of women in chemistry studies but, regrettably, we do not see the same picture across all the STEM subjects. In engineering, maths and IT, women are under-represented after the age of 16, and in computer science the position is worse than it was 20 years ago. The same picture is also seen in the much-fêted Nordic countries. We need strategies in our schools to address the education choices made by young women as they approach further and higher education, and schools themselves must think more creatively and imaginatively about career routes for women, and encourage girls to progress down them.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Shipley has had to leave the debate, although I understand why, because I want to pick up on a couple of his points. On women as mothers, and on how that inhibits their labour market participation, he suggested that part of the problem was some of the maternity rights that have been secured—after considerable fighting, to which the Minister has, in the recent past, contributed.

What determines women’s unpopularity with the kind of employers that the hon. Gentleman characterised is not the right to maternity leave but the fact that they can become mothers at all. Removing the right to maternity leave would not increase the propensity of such employers to take on women; they would simply not employ them in the first place. It is right that we should establish an institutional requirement that women who have contributed to an employer’s business, have skilled up to be able to make that contribution and have a continuing contribution to offer should have their ability to return to their employment assured. As we know, retention of staff is a cost-effective way for employers to operate their businesses, so there is an employer advantage as well.

It is also important that we design shared parenting arrangements in a way that genuinely facilitates equal parenting by women and men. We await the Government’s response to their modern workplaces consultation, and I am concerned that any plans for redesigning parental leave should take account of what we know is effective in ensuring that both women and men are likely to take up leave entitlement. Much depends on whether the leave is paid, and women, but particularly men, find it extremely difficult to take parental or paternity leave if there is no income replacement. It is also important to recognise that it is absolutely right to protect a certain period of maternity leave only for mothers, because of pregnant women and new mothers’ health and well-being needs.

I was interested in the statistics on women in senior positions that the hon. Member for Wirral West highlighted. She cited a number of disappointing statistics from the public sector, but in many ways the position is even worse in the private sector; only 15% of FTSE 100 companies have a woman on their board. I congratulate the Government on their work over the past year or so to influence a change in behaviour at board level in our leading companies, and it is good to see some of that bearing fruit.

I hope that the next thing that the other political parties would like to learn from—I am thinking about what genuinely advances women into positions of influence—is the Labour party’s success in significantly increasing female parliamentary representation through the use of all-women shortlists. I would say to the hon. Member for Shipley that of course we want people to advance on merit, but we must first ensure that they are advancing from a level playing field; too often, as I am sure the Minister would agree, women are not.

I was interested in the points made by the hon. Member for Wirral West about encouraging more women to become entrepreneurs and start new businesses. We absolutely want to encourage that, both in this country and around the world. Much of the difficulty that women experience in starting a new business relates to factors such as lenders’ perceptions. Interesting experiments have been done in the developing world with microfinance and access to credit, and they could be translated into this country. I hope that the Government will consider why only 25% of their enterprise allowance is taken up by women and whether more can be done to encourage women entrepreneurs to take advantage of it.

This debate has rightly discussed women’s role as care givers. Lack of access to child care is inhibiting girls’ and women’s participation and economic success. We still hear, for example, of girls being forced out of education when they become pregnant or are unable to access child care. The hon. Members for Broxtowe and for Shipley both suggested that the answer to the lack of affordable child care was to diminish regulation. I warn the Minister and her colleagues in the Government to be cautious about that.

I am proud of the progress made under Labour to increase the supply of child care. Between 1997 and 2009, we went from one place for every nine children under the age of eight to one place for every three. We massively increased child care supply. I am pleased that the coalition Government are continuing down the track of creating more places for two-year-olds, but I urge Ministers strongly not to weaken quality through deregulation.

A strong body of evidence suggests that good-quality child care and early-years interventions are the most important factor in improving long-term outcomes, especially for the poorest children highlighted by the hon. Member for Broxtowe. In the Netherlands, where steps were taken to deregulate the provision of child minding services, the adverse impact on children’s outcomes has led the Dutch Government to reverse their decision. I hope that Ministers learn from that.

Finally, I will mention a couple of issues that did not come up in this morning’s debate but are also important to women’s participation as global economic actors. Violence against women continues to be a major issue. Of course, if a woman is suffering from violence and abuse, that is likely to affect her economic and educational performance as well as being a fundamental attack on her human rights. All Governments have rightly given the issue considerable attention. It is not confined to our country; we must fight and address it around the world, as well as addressing women’s voices and autonomy to control and determine choices relating to their own lives.

I could highlight many such choices. We have discussed educational choices, but we have not talked much about health and reproductive choices, or women’s opportunity to shape their own communities and whether or not they can secure political participation. It is important that the right institutional structures are in place to ensure that women’s voices can be heard and are given a legitimate place in the public political process. The Beijing platform for action for the advancement of women is a useful framework in which to do so. If the Minister has time, I would be interested to hear, now that we no longer have the Women’s National Commission, how she thinks the institutional machinery will work to preserve women’s institutional political influence in the UK.

It has been a pleasure to participate in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral West and all speakers on their consideration of an interesting and worthwhile set of issues. It is important that we continue to celebrate women as decision makers and women’s participation in the economy, family life and their communities, and continue to strive for their continuing advancement—not just for women’s sake, but for the good of our society as a whole.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 10:44, 26 June 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I hugely congratulate Esther McVey on securing this important debate and making one of the most exceptional, wide-ranging and well-researched speeches on the issue that I have heard.

We all know that the UK, European and world economies continue to face significant challenges. In these tough times, Governments and companies around the globe are looking for every available competitive advantage. This Government believe that in doing so, we must utilise fully women’s skills and potential. It is a no-brainer, really; it is obvious. It makes sense: it is good for women, for our economy and for British business. We will create a more competitive economy and a more equal society.

I congratulate all who have taken part in this debate. Significant contributions were made by almost all the Members who have taken part. The hon. Member for Wirral West mentioned role models and global leaders. Aung San Suu Kyi and others have been significant in raising our eyes to the magnificence that is possible. There is something exceptionally wonderful about someone of the size and shape of Aung San Suu Kyi standing against the military might of Burma. The contrast was incredibly effective, and we were all moved listening to her.

While I am praising famous women, I mention Hillary Clinton, who has done magnificently in her role as Secretary of State, as a good example of someone who has raised the profile of women. So are the women who stood shoulder to shoulder in Egypt during the revolution. We now wait with bated breath to see whether they will secure the political rights and freedoms that should go with such a change.

I am proud that this Government have placed women and children at the heart of our international development policy with a strategic vision for girls and women, which highlights the importance of economic empowerment, for example, and sets ambitious targets for developing countries to reach by 2014 in order to help 18 million women access financial services and 4.5 million to strengthen their property rights. Hon. Members are right that we in the United Kingdom have much in common with our sisters around the world who, wherever they are on the spectrum, tend not to be on an equal footing.

Interestingly, the hon. Member for Wirral West mentioned image and gender stereotyping. It drives me mad that we are always represented as either servile or sexual. The Government are doing a great deal of work on that. Although some say that that is the nanny state, I say that it is essential that the Government take a stand on the sexualisation of children and the conformity imposed on us by singular images and gender stereotyping.

My hon. Friend Anna Soubry discussed how, when she was younger and planning to be a lawyer, she was almost forced into the family law division, but resisted. Things have changed in law, which is fantastic, but unfortunately, in many other areas, they have not. The career choices made by school leavers have huge economic consequences. As my hon. Friend said, if someone chooses to be a beautician or a hairdresser, that is absolutely fine, but they should recognise that it is an economic choice. If they choose a higher-paying career, their choices in life will be very different. That is an important issue in our action on careers.

The new national careers service will encourage girls and women to challenge stereotypes by giving the broadest of options. It will provide information on a wide range of opportunities, such as studying science and maths, for example, which were mentioned by Kate Green. She also mentioned STEM subjects. A recently announced funding programme, in which the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will work with the Royal Society, will focus on increasing diversity in the scientific work force. Over four years, a total of £700,000 will be invested in work to overcome the barriers to girls studying STEM subjects and entering related industries. That is incredibly important. Early choices are hard to make up for later.

I will mention Philip Davies only briefly, as he is not here. I must cast aspersions on the idea that men get there on merit alone. Often, men get there just because they have been there all the way.

On enterprise, as we have heard, if we want our economy to grow, it is vital that we support more women to set up and grow their own businesses. Last week, we published details about the army of women who are backing us to boost business. The Government have provided funding for 15,000 mentors to support those setting up and growing their own business. The hon. Member for Wirral West has said how many more businesses we would have if more women began start-ups. I am pleased to announce that, as of last week, more than 12,000 mentors have registered, 40% of whom—almost 5,000—are women. I was fortunate, because my mother had her own business, so when I needed help to set up my design business, I could ring her to ask how to do a business plan, a VAT return and so on. It was easy and, in a sense, the business mentors are like mothers or fathers who can give people personal advice that they may otherwise feel inhibited about requesting.

On women in rural enterprise, we have published details of a £2 million programme to help female entrepreneurs in rural areas—there is a specific difficulty in such areas—to start or grow their own businesses. We have set up the women’s business council, which is chaired by Ruby McGregor-Smith, the chief executive officer of the FTSE 250 company Mitie. She was named business leader of the year at the Orange national business awards in 2011 and leads a prestigious group of UK business people drawn from a wide range of sectors. Over the coming months, the council will examine the full range of issues affecting women’s economic participation in education, work and entrepreneurship, both from the perspective of women and the choices they face and, importantly, from the perspective of business. The issue of women’s lives, which are complex, has been raised, and at its next meeting the council will consider issues relating to women’s economic participation with regard to three key life stages. Following its deliberation, the council will consider its conclusions and produce its final report, which will outline a series of practical steps that Government, business and individuals can take to support women and the economy. The report will be presented to Ministers next spring.

On work, I do not know about the two remaining Members—the hon. Members for Wirral West and for Stretford and Urmston—but I have children, and negotiating responsibilities is very difficult. I have to do a lot of planning and be very good at multi-tasking, organising and responding to unexpected last-minute events. It can be done, but nevertheless the introduction of the right to request flexible working for all, as well as shared parental leave will address some of those very difficult issues. Many of our most forward-thinking employers already understand that. Although the hon. Member for Shipley said that small businesses have difficulties, it is actually the case that businesses such as mine—I had one with four members of staff—go to the ends of the earth to be flexible for their staff. Arranging work around the familial needs of a good member of staff benefits businesses in the long run. They need to invest in the good employees who work for them—they will give back more than they could ever give them. That is an important development.

The hon. Gentleman also said that businesses look at women of child-bearing age and say, “I’m not going to employ her, because she may go off and have a baby,” but shared parental leave will mean that employers will no longer to be able to say with any certainty whether it is the man or woman who has applied for a job who will take that leave when they have children. Frankly, when I had children, men were involved in the process.

Last week, the Government announced that they will establish a new commission to look at the costs of child care, which is one of the biggest issues that women face across the board. The cost of child care is huge. I spent all my money on child care when my children were young and I was working. The new commission will be led by Ministers from the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education. We realise the huge costs and the bearing they have on women and their families.

On top of that, as has been mentioned, we are supporting child-care costs to families who work less than 16 hours a week, by providing an extra £300 million for child-care support under universal credit. Eighty thousand more families with children will be able to work the hours that they choose. We have increased free early education to 15 hours a week for three and four-year-olds, and we are extending the entitlement to free education and care for 260,000 of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds to 15 hours a week. Working families can currently claim substantial help with additional child-care costs through working tax credit. From 2013, the Government’s new universal credit will support those who work, by ensuring that they are better off by doing so. More will always be needed on child care, but the new commission is specifically tasked with dealing with the costs of child care, because that is one of the biggest inhibitors for women who want to return to work.

On equal pay, which I think the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned, we have published our updates on our “Think, Act, Report” initiative, some of which relate to the economic consequences of choices made early on. The case studies show that adopting the principles behind the Government’s voluntary approach to diversity at work has helped leading firms reap business benefits. We strongly believe that a light-touch approach, such as “Think, Act, Report”, is the best way to encourage most employers to deal with the complex causes of unequal pay. They have to think about gender differences, act on them and then publish, in whatever form suits them best, what they have found, what they are doing and their best practice.

If the voluntary method is the best way to progress, we also need a stick for those companies that do not follow this progressive agenda, so it is right that we take strong action in the few cases in which employers have been shown to have breached the law. That is why we recently announced that we intend to proceed with our proposal that where an employment tribunal finds that an employer has breached equal pay law, it will order them to conduct a pay audit in cases where continuing discrimination is likely. If an employer has already been found to be bad, there is reason to instruct further. We intend to legislate when parliamentary time allows.

I am slightly short of time, but let me address access to finance, which is a huge issue. I have been working with the British Bankers Association to understand those areas in which there may be discrimination or barriers against women accessing loans for business or mortgages. A report will be issued shortly.

The Government and Lord Davies have made progress on the issue of women on boards. There has been a great improvement in the number of women on FTSE 100 boards—representation has risen from 12.5% to 16%—and it is on target to reach 25%. Only eight all-male boards remain in the FTSE 100, which is eight boards too many. One woman on a board is insufficient, but we will reach the 25% target. From October, there will be a new provision in the corporate governance code, which will require companies to comply or explain their policies.

We have made it clear that we will not introduce quotas. We have a role to play in ensuring that the right frameworks are in place to enable business to thrive, which is what our business-led approach does. We do not believe that European Union-wide standards are appropriate—a discussion is ongoing and we have responded to a consultation on quotas—given the different corporate governance rules, economies and labour market conditions across member states. We also recognise that cultural expectations play a role. In the UK, we do not have a culture of using quotas. In fact, they are not lawful under our domestic legislation. At the moment, we are making good progress.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of all-women shortlists, which led to a step change in representation in Parliament. I believe that they are available until 2030. Both Labour and the Conservatives have taken huge steps forward, and the Liberal Democrats would also have done so had we had more women in winnable seats.

This has been an excellent debate. We could discuss many things that Members on both sides of the House are trying to address. I do not think that the differences between us on this issue are as huge as some of the views expressed in Parliament may lead us to believe. We all need to make sure that, from the earliest point in life, girls are given the choices that will enable them to progress. There is a difference between the lives of men and women, but we are trying to equalise their status as much as we can by providing the support that is needed. There is a whole world of people out there, and half of them are women.

In conclusion, in a global economy the action that we are taking across the world makes sense. It is good for women, good for our economy and good for British business. In doing so, and in advancing the role of women, we create a more competitive economy and a more equal society.