It’s a great pleasure to be able to address you this evening. I would like to thank Roseann Kelly for giving me this second opportunity to take part in an event for Women in Business, an organisation of which I am a great admirer.
There’s been a considerable debate in recent weeks about the under-representation of women in politics and public life. The numbers are stark with women making up only a little over 22% of the House of Commons and just 23% of the Assembly.
This problem is certainly not unique to the UK. Most European countries are grappling with the same issue.
The truth is that the problem isn’t old-style discrimination in candidate selection, though I doubt that has gone away.
At the root of gender imbalance in politics is the fact that the demands of a political career take a toll on family life that many women understandably feel is too high a price to pay. It’s also entirely understandable that some women are wary about taking on the intense public scrutiny that can come with elected office.
But progress is being made.
While there can be little doubt that the public face of politics in Northern Ireland has often seemed to be very male dominated in the past, today women like Arlene Foster, Jennifer McCann, Dolores Kelly, Naomi Long and Jo-Anne Dobson are at the forefront of modern politics here.
In the Republic of Ireland, all the top justice jobs are currently held by women, Justice Minister, Lord Chief Justice, Attorney General, DPP and acting Garda Commissioner.
And in Westminster, David Cameron has put women in charge of 2 portfolios with great significance for security sensitivity, namely the Home Office and the Northern Ireland Office.
We have Ann Henderson taking on the challenging role of chairing the Parades Commission. And people like Tracy Hamilton, Janet McCollum, Patricia O’Hagan and Darina Armstrong are demonstrating the world beating quality of women entrepreneurs in Northern Ireland.
In addition there are many inspirational women who I’ve met on my visits throughout Northern Ireland who are involved in painstaking day-to-day work designed to bring communities together and heal the old sectarian divisions, which have done so much harm here in the past.
And I want to assure you that gender equality is an important priority for David Cameron.
I’d say firstly that a key outcome of the government’s long term economic plan is improved economic opportunities for women.
There are now more women in work than ever before and more women running their own business than ever before.
40% of successful applications for the government’s start up loans for entrepreneurs have come from women.
Many thousands of women are taking up the opportunities provided by the massive programme of apprenticeships funded by the government.
The gender pay gap has narrowed considerably since 2010 and has now almost been eliminated for full time workers under 40.
We are introducing tax free childcare from 2015 saving working families up to £1200 per child per year.
And the Prime Minister has personally pushed forward efforts to ensure children are given much better protection from explicit imagery online by securing the commitment of the internet industries to family-friendly filters.
Looking overseas, William Hague has ensured that efforts to eliminate sexual violence in conflict have been put at the top of the international agenda.
This government’s massive programme of overseas development puts support for women and girls at the heart of our programmes, with a particularly strong focus on education.
I’m sure you all here will share my sense of grave concern for the kidnapping of over 270 teenagers in Nigeria whose only wrongdoing was to aspire to get an education. The government is determined to do all it can to help and a team has been sent out to assist in efforts to find the girls.
So there have been some real successes, but the government acknowledges there is more work to be done.
I recognise the hard times experienced by many women as a result of what has been a very severe recession with the Coalition inheriting an economy which had contracted by 7.2%, impacting on every family in this country.
Incomes have been squeezed, businesses have come under pressure and Northern Ireland is still living with the negative impact of the property crash.
The work of the UK government to deal with the deficit and fix the economy is crucial in providing the opportunities for women in business and the workplace.
56% of people taken out of income tax because of the government’s increases in the threshold are women.
And a fundamental element of our long term economic is delivering the best schools and skills for young people so the next generation can succeed in the global race for jobs and investment.
Whilst such matters are of course devolved in Northern Ireland, I am sure the administration here will also recognise the crucial importance of encouraging more young people to choose STEM subjects and careers in science and engineering.
As a nation we lag seriously behind our competitors in terms of participation in STEM subjects and one of the ways we solve that is by increasing the participation of women in these career options. That was at the heart of the launch by the Chancellor and Education Minister, Liz Truss, last week of the Your Life campaign at the Science Museum in London.
This has signed-up more than 180 organisations, including companies, professional organisations, universities and schools, who have all pledged to take action to increase female participation in technology, engineering and physical science.
So in conclusion, I warmly welcome the work done at this conference in helping so many women build the knowledge, experience and self-confidence to embark on a career in business.
The message people should take away from this conference is that women are succeeding in business and public life in Northern Ireland, that they have the ability, determination and drive to achieve great things in whatever task they set themselves and that includes enterprise and business.
I’m very hopeful that this conference will provide the inspiration for many women to push forward with their hopes and aspirations and set them on the path towards turning those aspirations into the world-beating business of the future. Businesses which we so urgently need in order to rebalance our economy, boost the private sector and provide young people of Northern Ireland with the bright future and the great career opportunities that they deserve.