Karren Brady: Women’s talents are vital to UK’s future success

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WOMEN’S economic empowerment is often talked about in terms of quotas or targets, but this is the language of charity, of welfare and of equality for equality’s sake. As someone who did not need a quota or a target to get on in the business world, it is not, and should not be, about those things.

When I became the CEO of Birmingham City Football Club, people thought it was tokenistic, that I was window dressing and that hiring a woman was a gimmick. It was only once they realised that I had a serious plan to turn around a failing business and put that into practice that attitudes changed and people understood that I was there because I was qualified, up to the job and could do it well. After all, that is what they would assume about any man who was taking over.

If I had my time again, people might still ask whether I had enough experience to do the job but, if they did not feel the need to ask about my gender, that would be progress.

Let me be clear: we are on the path to progress. My mother’s generation did not even enjoy equal rights before the law. Some professions and institutions were completely closed to her. We now need to move on from changing the law to changing perceptions, attitudes and culture.

Women’s economic empowerment is about success, not just for us, but, for UK plc. It is about not missing out on half the talent pool which is available to do the top jobs in this country, to lead our companies in the global economy and to start new ones and grow them too.

It is about diversity of thinking, different perspectives on the same issues, new skills, new mindsets and new ideas. We need to challenge existing ways of doing things, and empowering women is a great way of achieving this.

A good board should have a variety of executives with different backgrounds and bodies of expertise. A starting point should be more women. Boards are there to challenge the executives, to ask the difficult questions and to hold them to account.

So how do we get half of our companies, our boards and even our Governments to be run by women? First, I want to say that I am proud to be a Conservative peer because I am proud of my party’s record on women’s economic empowerment.

Under the previous Government, there were 21 all-male boards in the FTSE 100. Now there are none. In 2010, women made up only 12.5 per cent of the members of corporate boards of the FTSE 100; this figure is now 22.8 per cent and I want to see it increased further. I am not saying that boards with no women should be made to appoint some on the spot, but they should at least be made to answer why they do not have any.

I am also pleased to say that there is a record number of women in work. Our long-term economic plan has helped to increase the number of women in work to record highs – with 14.4 million now in employment, an increase of 796,000 since 2010. As an active business mentor and as the Conservative Party’s Small Business Ambassador, I am pleased that there are also more women-led businesses than ever before.

On our journey into the world of work, women and their employers need to know that any career door can be open to them, as they start to move away from thinking of certain industries as male-oriented. I know how necessary this is, coming from a background in football.

That is why I am pleased that we are increasing the number of women who take up careers in science, technology, engineering and maths. The “Your Life” campaign is working with businesses to support more women in these industries – for example, Airbus is committed to recruiting 25 per cent women engineers.

We are also providing a £10m fund to help women progress as engineers.

It is not all down to government policy. Some of it is down to culture and attitudes – even the attitudes of women themselves. As Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg said, women systematically underestimate their own abilities. If and when they succeed, they typically do not attribute that success to themselves. This needs to change and I hope that I, and many others, can be an example to other women. I have been lucky enough to work with boards which have looked at what I have done, not at my gender. This is the attitude that we need to foster.

We do not need to stack the deck in favour of women; we just need to tell them – and tell the world – that women can do anything they want. Where they lack the tools, Governments should provide them.

Someone said to me recently that, in society today, it is not okay to be a bit racist or a bit homophobic, but it is still okay to be a bit sexist. I am delighted that this debate is taking place as a means to stamping that out.

Karren Brady is a Conservative MP, vice chairman of West Ham FC and a broadcaster. She spoke in a House of Lords debate on International Women’s Day. This is an edited version.