Lynne Featherstone's speech to Fawcett Society

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

Equalities minister Lynne Featherstone delivered this speech to the Fawcett Society on 28 May 2010. The text is check against delivery.

It was only last month, just prior to the election Theresa and I stood before you as shadow ministers for equality. We spoke of our personal commitment and our parties’ commitment to build a fairer future for women.

But then it was always about what we would do for women if we were in government.

Today I stand before you as a government minister for women and equality!

For the first time I have the opportunity not only to say, not only to listen, but to actually make change for women. I can turn my commitment and passion for this agenda into action.

And I speak on behalf of Theresa when I say it is an enormous honour and privilege for both of us.

I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor Harriet Harman.  Her commitment to equality and to women’s equality and the energy which she brought to this agenda is exemplary.

No rollback on equality

Now I know there have been some concerns about what place women’s issues will have in the new coalition government. And I understand your concerns. These are certainly anything but typical times in the world of politics! And I am not just talking about the coalition. We are in an economic crisis that limits our resources and breeds uncertainty.

But let me be clear: there will be NO rollback on equality - certainly not our watch.

Our focus is clear: a bold and ambitious approach to tackling gender inequality.
Because we understand that gender equality is not only ‘right;’ it is necessary. It is not simply a women’s agenda. It is everybody’s agenda.

Tackling discrimination helps us all

When women in our democratic bodies are vastly outnumbered by men - it’s not just women who lose their voice.  Democracy is flawed plain and simple without the vital contribution of women. The quality of political decision making is affected. 

When a company keeps choosing men only when recruiting senior staff - it’s not just the woman who gets overlooked for promotion.  It’s the management and performance of the company itself that is called into question. They are losing out on the skills and talents that women bring to the table.

When a woman just as capable, just as talented and just as skilled is paid vastly less than a man for similar work, it is not just the woman who loses out on earnings. It’s her family’s income and prosperity which is affected too.

So to pit gender equality against the needs of the economy is a false dichotomy. Gender equality is a prerequisite for the future growth of our economy and the health and stability of our society.

We will not let the progress women have made, the progress your organisations have fought so hard for slide backwards in this economic climate.

We will be introducing a fairer tax system which will benefit those on low incomes - sadly the majority of whom are women because women are more likely to work part-time and be employed in lower-paid jobs. The level at which income tax is paid will be increased, with the long term objective of raising it to £10,000. This will put money back into the pockets of millions of women, and others on the minimum wage.

And while it is a matter of urgency we cut the deficit, let me assure you this will not be disproportionately at the expense of women’s jobs. Theresa and I will be vigilant in reminding colleagues of their legal duties to promote equality and introduce impact assessments.

Looking ahead

But we don’t simply want to see women through the harsh effects of the recession.  We need to ensure they have a fairer future.

Building a fairer society is at the heart of the coalition government’s programme for change. We believe there are too many barriers to social mobility and equal opportunities in Britain today. For women we want to build a society that works with us and not against us - where women and men are afforded the same opportunities and choices to realise their full potential.

And the issue of equal pay is critical to this. As was spelt out in the Queen’s speech on Tuesday, equal pay and measures to remove the barriers to flexible working are absolutely central to the government’s reforming programme.

We think a new approach is needed. The status quo is clearly not working.

While the tax threshold we plan to introduce is on one hand good news for women. The very fact that forty years after the Equal Pay Act, the majority of those on low wages are still women reminds us just how frustratingly slow progress has been - how difficult it is to remove deep-rooted and entrenched inequality. We have been banging on about equal pay for years. 

And it is no good assuming the gap only exists because women choose lower-paying professions - at the high end of the pay spectrum it’s no different.

In 2008 the highest paid female director of a FTSE 100 company took home £3.8m - but it is a figure dwarfed by the highest paid man - who took home £36.8m - almost ten times as much.

Of course I think pay levels like that are obscene. But the issue still is - from the highest earners to low income earners - women get the raw deal.

The Equality Act is a big step in the right direction.

But we don’t believe the Act alone will be sufficient to meet the scale of the challenge.

Because the causes of the gender pay gap are deep and complex.

We know from research that as well as outright discrimination, the pay gap occurs:

  • because there is lack of quality part-time work for people with caring responsibilities
  • because there are still some jobs that are mostly done by women and some jobs mostly done by men
  • because of interruptions to the labour market, usually due to motherhood
  • and because there is a lack of women in senior roles and in enterprise

And so while focusing on straightforward discrimination is important, if we are to overcome the pay gap, we need to go much wider.

That is why as well as measures to promote equal pay and measures to end discrimination; we will work to address all the causes of the pay gap to deliver:

  • an historic extension of the right to request flexible working to all employees, consulting with businesses on how best to do so
  • a review of fair pay in the public sector and work to promote gender equality on the boards of listed companies

On that point I welcome the news that the Independent Financial Reporting Council has updated their corporate governance code to include stronger references to the importance of diversity on company boards. While we still have a long way to go, this is a critical step forward in shifting that old boy’s club culture that still persists in the boardroom.

Working in partnership 

But this is all work in progress. Theresa and I are still in the process of setting out the detail of how we are going to take the issue of gender pay forward. And as the leading light, the experts on this issue we are clear we cannot do this without you.

We don’t want you just to be asking us to make change; we want you to be involved in helping us make that change.

We need you to help us formulate fresh ideas, more innovative and creative thinking to make sure we really get to the root of the problem. So I hope today will be the first of many events where I get the opportunity to listen and feed in your thoughts.

And we need you to help us win the argument for gender equality. Because we are not always in friendly territory. The virtual absence of women from high level decision making whether it is in politics or in the world of business means our voices are often drowned out.

So we need to get our message across a little louder. You know better than anyone that to get things done, to push things through we have to create quite a bit of noise - cause a bit of trouble!  By working together we can cause a lot more trouble and get a lot more things done!