‘I am delighted to be here this evening at this important event. This government’s priority is to get our economy back in shape. That means dealing with the deficit. And it means stimulating growth.
Giving all women the opportunity to achieve their full potential must be at the heart of our approach to economic growth.
Better use of women’s skills could be worth fifteen to twenty three billion pounds to our economy each year.
If women were setting up new businesses at the same rate as men we would have 150,000 more companies in the UK.
We can no longer afford to keep missing out on the economic benefits that greater gender equality could bring.
We need to not only do more to help women starting out in their careers, and those who want to start their own businesses, but we must also do more to help those women who aspire to the very top.
As you know, last year, only 12.5 per cent of all FTSE 100 board members were women.
That is simply not good enough
And that is why organisations like the 30 per cent club are so important.
For many years I have championed the cause of hard working, talented women.
When I was Conservative Party Chairman we had the option of using all women shortlists to increase the number of women MPs we had. We decided not to take that route.
Instead, we focused on reaching out to talented women who hadn’t considered entering politics before and on providing support, advice and training to women who wanted to enter Parliament. The proportion of women MPs in the party has now doubled, although admittedly it is still too low.
Achieving change in this way is hard work and progress can be slower than everyone would like.
Of course quotas offer a short cut or a quick fix to increase female representation.
And on the specific issue of women on boards, some countries have decided to use quotas. But others have not and they have still had real success.
Australia’s ‘if not why not’ model shows that good progress can be made without resorting to quotas.
Change has more of an impact and is more long lasting if it comes from positive action, not positive discrimination.
That lasting change will only happen when women know what opportunities are open to them, when they have the skills and training to take up those opportunities, when businesses know the benefits of having more diverse boards and when the whole process is clear and transparent.
That’s why we are making policy changes that will really help women to get on in business.
Our policy to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees will help shift attitudes and shift behaviour away from the traditional nine to five model of work that can act as a barrier to many women and that also doesn’t make sense for many modern businesses.
Our policy to introduce a new system of flexible parental leave will help all working women who want to have children. For the first time, it will allow both parents to choose what is right for them and what is right for their family.
Women friendly employment policies like these will make a real difference. But I also want policies that specifically help women get into the boardroom.
That’s why Vince Cable and I commissioned Lord Davies to look at how we can increase the number of women on company boards.
Since Lord Davies reported in February 2011. We have made good progress in implementing his recommendations.
In May, the Financial Reporting Council launched a consultation on changes to the UK corporate governance code in order to help to achieve more diverse and more effective boards.
The head-hunting industry has agreed a voluntary code on diversity.
And we are beginning to build a strong sense of ownership and action in FTSE 100 companies. We have agreed with them a plan for how company aspirational targets should be published by September. I would urge all companies and organisations to meet the September deadline to outline their own targets for female representation on their boards and management teams by 2013 and 2015.
The latest figures suggest there has already been an improvement in FTSE 100 companies.
Some 21 per cent of new board members appointed since Lord Davies’ report have been women, up from just 13% last year, and the number of male-only boards has dropped from 21 in October to 14.
I’m delighted that businesses and organisations like yours are taking such a lead role in making change happen.
And we want business to lead change in tackling the gender pay gap as well.
That’s why we chose not to use the powers taken by the previous government in the Equality Act to require companies to report on their gender pay gap. Instead, we have been working with business and others - in a collaborative and cooperative way - to develop a voluntary approach to improving transparency on pay and on wider issues around women’s representation in the workforce.
We’ll formally launch this new approach later in the year and I hope many 30% Club members will want to engage with us.
Because I believe giving women opportunities in business must be business led. We can’t have government just simply imposing decisions - you need to take the initiative, you need to drive change, you need to grasp this agenda.
And our most forward thinking businesses are grasping the agenda. They’re doing that because they know it makes good businesses sense to do so.
Inclusive and diverse boards benefit from the fresh perspectives, new ideas and broad experience that successful women can bring.
And a company board that better reflects its customers is more able to understand its customers’ needs.
There’s growing evidence that companies with more women on their boards do indeed outperform their male-dominated rivals. No wonder.
So this is not equality for equalities’ sake - this is about making your company better.
I know you all know that.
But, together, we must spread the message to every company in the country - more women in your top team, can help your business be the best.