last week, Yorkshire and the Humber celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD), and I was delighted to see so many of our region’s great businesses celebrating the extraordinary talents of their own employees but of women in general.
For me, it was the first time I had spoken on a gender balanced panel looking out onto an audience which didn’t just consist of suits.
Seeing the stories of so many remarkable women on IWD, I couldn’t help but remember that female emancipation isn’t won only at the ballot box but in the boardroom, in factories and in offices.
Through work we shape our world and turn our ideas into things we value – products and services that benefit everyone.
Yet the real argument isn’t that women need business, but that business needs women.
A landmark study by McKinsey put some numbers behind what we all know to be true: that diverse companies are better companies.
But the sad truth is that women remain underrepresented in business, the gender pay gap is real and, even worse, some face harassment and many face unconscious discrimination. These are facts we cannot and must not ignore.
So, what do we do about it?
I hope in 30 years’ time we will not have to talk about this as an issue, but as something of historical interest, as we do the 1918 vote.
But we need to recognise that equality is a long-term project, requiring sustained action.
The first step of the plan is for women, men and businesses in Yorkshire and the Humber to get into our schools to deliver the message that business is for girls too.
In the next few months, the CBI will publish a toolkit which will provide businesses with the information they need to get involved in education.
Secondly, the gender pay gap remains a huge inequality, at 17.9 per cent across the UK.
Last year, for the first time, firms with over 250 employees published their gender pay gaps. Many firms, like the CBI, who were not required to publish data still chose to hold themselves to account by doing so.
What gets measured gets done and both they and we have pledged to do more to reduce the gaps in our businesses.
But we mustn’t also forget the gender pay gap has many complex causes. To help close it, we also need the Government to make progress on affordable childcare, technical education and careers advice too.
It is clear more needs to be done.
Businesses must show leadership in making equality, diversity and inclusion a priority for the whole organisation.
They must measure progress by collecting data on the pay gap and diversity and make small steps like challenging all-male shortlists and consider name-blind recruitment before any interview list is drawn up.
Unfortunately, inequality exists in other forms too.
We didn’t need #MeToo to tell us that unacceptable attitudes and behaviours still exist in some workplaces.
What’s made it more pernicious is the misuse use of Non-Disclosure Agreements, which can be valid and helpful for both employers and employees in the use of settlement agreements to resolve workplace disputes.
The CBI is calling for a statutory code of practice which should make some good practices compulsory, improve awareness of an NDA’s limitations and improve enforcement where they are misused.
We also want to have Section 40 of the Equalities Act reinstated to show employers they can be held accountable for third-party harassment and send a message that harassment at work will be rooted out.
Together we can create a business environment where all women can succeed.
Everyone should be able to bring their whole selves to work, feel valued and safe and have equal opportunity for their career to thrive.