Lynne Featherstone:Equality strategy speech at Barclays

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Lynne Featherstone, minister for equalities, gave this speech at the launch of 2010 Female FTSE 100 report, Barclays, east London on Thursday 2 December 2010. This version is as written, not as delivered.

‘Good morning everyone. First and foremost let me say thank you. Thank you to Barclays for hosting us and for your continuing support of this initiative. Thank you to all those other companies leading the way this year - especially to Burberry, Diageo, British Airways and Pearson who have made it to the very top of the list. And the biggest thank you of all goes to Susan, Ruth, Jacey and Elena for putting their life and soul into producing this very important and robust piece of analysis.

Current Situation

Susan and Ruth who co-founded the report have been doing this for twelve years now. They do an excellent, excellent job. By shining a light on the lack of women in the boardroom, it has drawn attention to an issue that didn’t even get a look in - that wasn’t even considered before. But, and it saddens me to say this, I often think they must be amongst the worst sufferers of deja vu!

I do not want to take away from the achievements of those companies that have made a change or the talented women who have made it to the top. There is some really excellent work going on - including mentoring schemes, sponsorship of internal women’s networks and leadership programmes.

But the report shows us much more needs to be done because overall the pace of change has been painfully slow. This year we are up from 12.2 per cent of FTSE 100 Directors to just 12.5 per cent over the past year. And this 12 per cent mark is a figure we have been stuck at for the last three years.

Change in strategy

And so the question is how can we ensure that next year, and even in five, ten, twenty years time we will see the number of women in the boardroom continue to rise, and rise somewhat more rapidly?

I believe the answer to this question lies in a change of strategy.

I am not going to criticise everything the last government did because I believe their intention was right. Where they went wrong is with the techniques they used. Top-down. Centralising. And above all bureaucratic. It wasn’t just a futile approach. It was a damaging one. Bucket loads of regulations were being dumped on businesses already struggling to keep their heads above water in the recession - to the point where equality measures were seen as a punishment - a punishment a lot of the time associated with women.

People lost sight of what we were trying to achieve on equality. They saw equality as being some sort of special treatment reserved for certain individuals and group - when in actual fact equality is for everybody.

Particularly now more than ever, equality is tremendously important for our prosperity. We are in the process of rebuilding our economy out of the worst financial crisis we have seen since the Great Depression. And aside from clearing up a massive deficit and all the other mess we have been left one thing I am absolutely certain about is that we will never fully recover - we will never be the strongest we can be until we understand that our economy works at its best only when everybody is participating - when we are using the talents and skills of all our people.

The past approach also put too much focus on tackling overt discrimination. Legislation was viewed as the sole route to equality - which did nothing to tackle the much wider, more complex causes of inequality.

If we take women and the boardroom as an example - of course sexism still plays a part but for the most part I think it is much more subtle than that. It really comes down to the entrenched culture and mindsets that have become institutionalised in some places of work.

Certainly from the women I’ve spoken to they have told me that in some organsiations so much of the hiring and internal promotions are still, even in this day and age are undertaken on a bit of a nudge-nudge wink-wink basis and decided before women even get a chance to apply.

It’s not that there aren’t the women out there. The Cranfield report has shown year in and year out that there is a huge female talent pool. We can be clear that British women don’t lack experience, they don’t lack ambition and they don’t lack skills or qualifications.

A great deal of research has shown that the problem is caused by a creeping unconscious bias - where the higher you get in an organisation, the more subjective the promotion processes becomes. And when you allow too much subjectivity - you see people hiring in their own image - hiring people who look and talk just like them. 

To tackle these kinds of systemic cultural barriers - practices that have been going on for years - change really has to come from within. Action has to be driven by business. It requires employers to take a step back and really look at their structures and way of doing things to create a new kind of ‘normal.’
So we want to move away from the arrogant notion from government that it knows best to one where we empower individuals, businesses and communities to enact change. And we want to move away from the box-ticking politics of the past - where individuals were reduced to categories and ‘groups’ to one where equality is recognised as being a positive force for everybody, and everybody’s responsibility to drive forward.

Now that doesn’t relieve the government of its responsibility to create the conditions, the environment for change.

We see our role as providing you with the tools for you to then decide how and when you will use them. Different organisations face different challenges in promoting equality so if we are to get this right for everybody a much more flexible approach is needed.

That is precisely why we have appointed Lord Davies of Abersoch who is working alongside FTSE companies to come up with new ways of improving representation on boards - including looking at what more we, as a government can do to help support you. You know the barriers preventing women from reaching board level, better than government ever could - which is why we look to you to help us come up with business led solutions.

The Home Secretary spoke in great detail about this radical change in government’s approach to equality a few weeks ago. And we have enshrined this approach in our new cross-government Equality Strategy being published today. It is our blueprint for change. And within that strategy are two new policy announcements I think will be really effective tools in helping you attract and develop more talented women in your organisations.

Government Action

The first is we have announced next year that the government will commence the positive action provisions in recruitment and promotion contained in the Equality Act.

It will allow you to apply voluntary positive action in selection processes when faced with two or more candidates who are as qualified as each other for the particular job you are recruiting for. Now this is absolutely not about political correctness. It is not about quotas. What it is about is giving employers the choice to make their workforce more diverse, and that includes at a board level. Recruitment will still be based on merit.

And the key word here is ‘choice’. No employer will be forced to use positive action. 

I can also confirm today that we will be working with business to develop a voluntary approach to pay reporting that works for you. We believe that by helping you to see where the problems are you will be able to take the kind of constructive, measured and targeted approach needed to make real and long-lasting change.

We will annually review the numbers of companies releasing information, and its quality, under the voluntary approach to assess whether this approach is successful - and take a view over time whether alternatives are required, including a mandatory approach through section 78 of the Equality Act. But we really expect and want the voluntary approach to work. This will give better information and is more likely to drive successful change.

I want to be clear here that we are not asking business to do anything that we in government are not doing ourselves. We reshaped plans for the public sector Equality Duty so it now focuses on providing information to enable citizens to hold public bodies to account - to enhance transparency. And across government when we published details of salaries, of contracts awarded and of organisational structures - that enhanced transparency. We have also set ourselves an aspiration that by the end of the Parliament at least half of all new appointees being made to the boards of public bodies will be women.

I am under no illusions that we have a really big mountain to climb. But I believe everything in place for us to achieve real success. We just have to work together to drive it forward. And already so much is taking place to this effect. The Home Secretary and I have had some really productive conversations with the industry on this issue, and will continue to do so. And as for today, I don’t just want this to be a talking shop. We want to hear from you about what we can do to be even more effective in helping you overcome barriers to equality within your organisations.

So thank you for listening and I very much look forward to hearing all the feedback from your conversations today.’