Helen Grant: More still to do to shape workplaces for women

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EVENTS marking International Women’s Day have given us a chance to reflect on and celebrate the enormous progress that has been made in this country, towards equality for women in the workplace, and in women’s contribution to the economy – progress that the generations before us could only imagine.

Securing economic recovery remains the most urgent task facing the Government. The evidence shows that the Government’s long-term economic plan is working but, as the Chancellor has said, the recovery is not yet secure. There is still much more to do, but we can take encouragement from the positive signs.

There are now 14 million women working. As well as being the highest number since records began, that also represents the highest employment rate, and it is quite an achievement. Of course, there is more to do, but there are 500,000 more women in work than there were when the Government took office.

The pace of change is also quickening. Women’s employment is now 199,000 higher than it was a year ago. I am also heartened that many more women see self-employment and enterprise as a viable option.

There are 175,000 more women in self-employment than there were in May 2010, and we know for example that a third of beneficiaries of the Government’s StartUp loan programme are women. That is excellent news for women and for the health and competitiveness of the economy.

There is still, however, more we can do to shape our workplaces to enable women to be full participants. In many ways, our workplaces have been transformed in recent decades.

A key feature of that transformation has been the rising number of women in work and increasingly in senior roles across the whole economy. Thankfully, the rules are changing. Flexible working is no longer seen as a necessary evil to accommodate women with caring responsibilities. It is now rightly seen by leading businesses as good practice, which enables not just women, but all of us who require some flexibility in our increasingly busy lives, to make a full and proper contribution at work. Therefore, from June, we will extend the right to request flexible working to all employees, to continue driving that culture change across business, to the point where there is no longer the concept of full-time or part-time working – just the concept of working.

Extending to all the right to request flexible working will also help to challenge the unfair stigma that those that need to work flexibly are somehow less committed to their employer.

Through the introduction of shared parental leave next year we are also working to end the assumption – another stigma, in my opinion – that women will be the main carer of a child; we will also be allowing fathers to play a bigger part in the first year of their children’s lives. That will help families to juggle their home and work life, and it will also lessen the negative impact on careers of time spent out of the workplace.

I am pleased to confirm that from October next year we will introduce tax-free child care, which will save working families up to £1,200 per child. Those are important and necessary changes, which will directly address issues that women face in the workplace, but we also need to tackle the cultures and attitudes that often prevent women from the reaching the top. Through our continuing work with the business community, we will ensure that more talented women take their rightful place in the boardroom and, once there, provide a better balance of views and experience.

Since February 2011, there have been unprecedented changes in the composition of boardrooms. Women now make up 20.4 per cent of the directors of FTSE 100 companies, which is up from 12.5 per cent, and there are now just two all-male FTSE 100 boards; that figure is down from 21. Again, that is great news for the economy, but it is vital that we maintain the momentum.

The pay gap is an important issue. It is a matter of concern that women are still disadvantaged in pay. We are addressing that in two main ways. First, for the vast majority of businesses who want to do the right thing by their female employees, we are encouraging good practice through the voluntary “Think, Act, Report” initiative. More than 170 organisations representing more than two million employees are showing that they are committed to equality in their business.

However, we shall also take tough action against employers who do not do the right thing, and from October when a tribunal finds that an employer has broken equal pay laws it will order a full pay audit, to prevent continuing sex discrimination in pay matters.