It is a real pleasure to be here tonight amongst so many dynamic and high achieving women and men on their way to the very top of their fields.
I particularly want to thank our hosts Nomura, who consistently demonstrate such commitment to equality and diversity, and I’m pleased to hear that you are never satisfied.
And I’m really pleased that they’ve been able to bring together the stars of the corporate world and the voluntary sector, both of whom do such important work for our economy and our society.
Why Having More Women On Boards Is Important
The UK, European and World economies continue to face significant challenges. In these tough times, governments, businesses and charities are looking for every available advantage.
So it is no wonder that more and more of our top companies and our best charities are recognising the fresh perspectives, innovative ideas and outstanding experience that women leaders can bring.
Those companies and charities understand that they can’t afford to ignore the skills and talent of half the population.
They know that a board that better reflects its customers, clients and supporters is better able to understand their needs.
And they’ve seen the research which shows that more diverse boards produce better results - with higher sales, higher returns on invested capital and higher returns on equity.
So our best companies, and our top charities, see that this is not just an issue of fairness or equality, this is an issue of economic strength.
Business led strategy
I believe it is essential that we get more businesses and charities to realise the benefits of having more women in their leadership teams.
That is the way we will bring about real and lasting change.
And that’s why I fully agreed with Lord Davies’ report, which proposed a business led strategy for increasing the number of women in the boardroom. And I’m delighted that Amanda McKenzie, who plays such an active role in Lord Davies’ steering group, is here this evening.
Before Lord Davies started his work, only 12.5% of all FTSE 100 board members were women.
One year on we have seen the biggest ever increase in the number of women in the boardroom - it now stands at 15.8%, and the number of all male boards in the FTSE 100 has dropped from 21 to 9. If we maintain this momentum, by 2015 we will have surpassed even Lord Davies’ target of 25% of women on the boards of our top companies. That would be a fantastic achievement. But it will only happen if we keep up the commitment.
Think, Act, Report
So if we want even more women to reach board level - particularly as executives - then we need business to look again at the pathways to the top.
Lord Davies’s report recognised that business taking action - and being open about doing so - can help deal with important problems like retaining talented female staff.
That action might be to build a pipeline of women to board level. Or it might be to put in place an internal development programme to bring through talented women.
And at the first meeting of the new Women’s Business Council, which the government has set up and which I attended last week, the Chair of the council, Ruby McGregor Smith, set out that one of the key themes they will be exploring is how to improve the talent pipeline for women - from our schools and colleges, to our Universities, into our companies, and right up to boardroom level.
Being open about the action companies are taking can really help to drive change by showing the public, your customers and your staff what you’re doing. That’s why we’ve made transparency a central part of our new initiative to tackle the barriers for women in the workplace, called ‘Think, Act, Report’.
Many of you are already “thinking, acting and reporting”. I want to thank you for supporting this initiative.
For those that have not yet taken up the approach I would urge you to do so. Companies like Tesco, GlaxoSmithKline and National Grid have already taken the lead and demonstrated what is possible in the retail, pharmaceutical and energy sectors - I challenge you all to follow suit.
Talent outside the corporate mainstream
But recognising the skills and talents of everyone with the potential to reach the top isn’t just something businesses should be doing.
Lord Davies recognised this in his report on women on boards, when he talked about looking for talented women from outside the corporate mainstream.
So I am pleased to be here tonight to launch “Women Count”, the female charity index, which gives a valuable insight into the women in senior roles in voluntary sector organisations.
It is clear that the number of women in senior positions in this sector is higher than that in the corporate world. But we can and must go further.
I hope that this valuable report will have the same sort of catalytic effect on the number of women reaching senior roles in the voluntary sector that Lord Davies’s work has had on the corporate world.
And, as I said earlier, transparency itself can be an important driver of change. And so by increasing transparency, this report can help bring about change for the better in the voluntary sector.
But “Women Count” also shows that there are a large number of talented women outside the corporate world who are running big organisations, making serious decisions and managing many employees.
Many of those high-performing women are well-qualified to take up corporate board positions, as either executives or non-executives.
And they could also take up important positions in the public sector, helping the Government to meet our aspiration that fifty per cent of new appointees to the boards of public bodies should be women.
So “Women Count” is an important step in identifying board level talent that is vital for our economic success in the public sector, corporate boards or on the boards of voluntary organisations.
And by highlighting the fantastic work women are doing in this vital area of our society, the “Women Count” report helps to show once again how important, influential and impressive top women can be.
We now have a strong commitment from the public sector, the corporate world and the voluntary sector to increase the number of women on boards.
When the key decisions makers better reflect our society, we maximise our chances for future growth, wellbeing and prosperity. And that is what we all want to see.