Lynne Featherstone's speech on women in the workplace

This speech was delivered by Lynne Featherstone on 1 December 2011.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Lynne Featherstone

It is a real pleasure to be here today at this important event with so many people who have the ability to influence the ‘gender agenda’ to positive effect.

The issues which will be discussed here today - women in the workplace, women in the board room and work life balance - have been receiving increasing media commentary lately.

From Lord Davies’ work on women in the boardroom to our plans to extend the right to request flexible working, the role women can play in getting the economy back in shape is on top of the Governments’ agenda.

I actually think you could rename this event the ‘growth agenda’!

Because this government’s first 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.

We have seen huge progress over the years and women now make up around half of the workforce.

However, women still experience inequalities. The gender pay gap still exists and there are still barriers which women have to face including lack of female role models, the long hours culture, and a lack of transparency around the recruitment process of senior positions.

And this is all in spite of women performing better than men in the education system and coming out of university with better qualifications than men.

Tackling these inequalities is therefore not just crucial for our generation but for future generations of women.

One of the best ways to do this is to tackle gender stereotyping, particularly in careers advice that young people receive.

A recent Girls Attitudes Survey found that many girls and young women would defer having children for their perfect career.

That should not be necessary.

And a third of girls surveyed thought that becoming a hairdresser or beautician were popular career choices for girls because it was all girls knew about.

I don’t mind what field young girls decide to enter, whether it be hairdressing or engineering or even politics.

But I do mind if girls are being put off certain careers because they are seen as traditionally male or funnelled into certain careers because they perceive them to be more suited to women.

It is important girls have the same opportunities and access to whatever career they choose and that they are fully informed about the career choices they make and what this will mean for their income and their future.

The evidence

Tackling these inequalities isn’t just a matter of fairness; it is also one of economic strength.

To put things into perspective, if in this country we fully used the skills and qualifications of women who are currently out of work, it could deliver economic benefits of fifteen to twenty one billion pounds per year.

That’s more than double the value of all our annual exports to China.

And even that massive figure underestimates the benefits that could come from every woman achieving her full potential.

As a country, in these tough times, we can’t afford to keep missing out.

So we in government are working hard to help women in business to fulfil their potential - for the good of our society and for the good of our economy.

Flexible working

One of the biggest challenges facing women is balancing work and family life.

The traditional, inflexible, 9-5 model of work just doesn’t make sense any more.

It doesn’t make sense for modern businesses in a global economy working across many time zones, nor does it make sense for most modern families,
where often both parents want to work or for many one parent families, where staying at home just isn’t an option.

And by restricting flexible working to certain groups, the idea is perpetuated that it’s some sort of special treatment, rather than being a sensible way to run a business.

Which is why this Government wants to help all hard working employees to balance their work and other commitments by extending the right to request flexible working to everyone. We believe that this will go some way in helping to shift attitudes.

Flexible parental leave

And we can go even further. The current system of maternity and paternity leave just reinforces the old stereotype that when a couple start a family, women should stay at home and look after the children and men should go out to work and earn the money.

But we know that fathers want to spend more time with their children so under our proposed new system of flexible parental leave, if fathers want to take more of a role in raising their children, they can.

If mothers want to return to work earlier, they can.

If both parents want to spend some time at home together after the birth of their child, they can.

Women on Boards

But I think we all know that there’s only so much that government alone can do.

Change will only come when businesses themselves realise the benefits and I would like to thank in particular the McKinsey research series ‘Women Matter’ for setting out the business case and the huge benefits of having a more gender diverse board.

I think the big difference, overall, between what we are doing now and what’s been tried before is that we are moving away from government dictating how businesses should be run via endless legislation.

We’re working alongside business to help them make their workplaces better for women.

Because let’s think about this in a hard-headed business way.

Research shows companies with more women on their boards out-perform their rivals, with over 40 per cent higher return in sales, 66 per cent higher return on capital and over 50 per cent higher return on equity.

So this isn’t equality for equality’s sake - it’s just good business sense.

We believe it’s a business-led approach which is needed to bring about change in the boardroom.

Last year, only 12.5% of all FTSE 100 board members were women.

That’s not good enough.

And that’s why last year we commissioned Lord Davies to report on this issue and to make recommendations to help get more talented women into the boardroom.

Six months on from his report, important steps forward have been made:

  • The Financial Reporting Council has announced it will amend the Corporate Governance Code to strengthen the principle of boardroom diversity.
  • The head-hunting industry has agreed a code on diversity.
  • And the numbers themselves are moving in the right direction. Women now make up over 14% of FTSE 100 Directors - up from last year.
  • The number of female board appointments since the report’s publication has almost doubled going from 13% last year to 24% now.
  • And the number of all male boards on the FTSE 100 has almost halved - it now stands at 12, down from 21 last year.

But there is still a long way to go. 

So we’ll be working with Lord Davies, and with business, to make sure we keep up momentum.

Of course mandatory quotas can offer a short cut or a quick fix to increase female representation.

But women want to be there on merit alone.

89% of women the Lord Davies Group spoke to during the course of the review were not in favour of quotas, they feared being considered mere tokens or side lined within the boardroom.

My view is that the right person for a role should be chosen on the basis of their ability and experience. This is about delivering better decision-making, better policies, not about political correctness.

Business performance is absolutely critical, because if you can demonstrate success from diversity and if it’s valued by the business, then it will not only be accepted, but encouraged.

Voluntary Gender Equality Reporting

Employers need to play their part in bringing about change.

And again some of our top companies now realise this.

That’s why in September Government joined senior figures from Tesco, BT, the leading law firm Eversheds, the CBI and others to launch ‘Think, Act, Report’, our new initiative to improve transparency on pay and wider workplace equality that will help drive change, including closing down the gender pay gap.

The simple, step-by-step process involves companies first identifying any issues around gender equality in their workforce or pay structures.

Then taking action to address those issues.

And finally reporting publicly on progress.

So: Think, Act and Report.

I want all of you here today to consider Thinking, Acting and Reporting on gender equality in your organisations. Don’t wait to follow others - take the lead.

Business Mentors

And everyone here today has another important task.

You can act as drivers of change, to inspire more young women to become the leaders of tomorrow.

This isn’t just for the good of women, but for the long term benefit of the country and the economy.

There are already more than 1.1 million self-employed women in the UK, nearly a third of the total self-employed population.

But although women in Britain are more entrepreneurial than their counterparts in Germany, Italy and Japan, women in Britain are still less likely than women in the USA to start their own businesses.

That’s why, earlier this month we announced that we will provide resources for 5,000 volunteer business mentors to be recruited and trained to offer effective support to women who want to start or grow their own business. 

Banking Investigation

The Deputy Prime Minister has also asked me to look into whether women are discriminated against when they seek access to finance to start or expand their business.

We’ll be working closely with the banks, women business owners and other stakeholders on how we can fix this.

Women’s Business Council

So we’re taking real action to help women in business.

But we can’t stop there - we need to maintain momentum and keep exploring new ways to help women achieve their full potential.

This is why we recently announced that we will be establishing a Women’s Business Council, to provide advice to the Home Secretary, to the Chancellor and to the Business Secretary on what can be done to maximise women’s contribution to our future economic growth.

This important new body will provide recommendations on public policy that affects women in business and will seek to improve the business environment for women so as to maximise profit and success.


The policies I have talked about today, like flexible working and flexible parental leave, will help.

They will make a real practical difference. 

But I think we all know that there’s only so much that government alone can do.

As I said at the beginning of my speech everyone here has the potential to have a positive influence on the ‘gender agenda’ and we need to work together to do this.

This is not just something which is good for women - if we can make progress on this agenda it will be good for the economy and therefore we all need to consider it a necessity and start to take action now!


Published 1 December 2011