Thank you Simon [Collins, Senior Partner and Chairman, KPMG] for that very kind introduction and can I thank KPMG for hosting this event this morning and for making us all so welcome so early in the day.
I can’t tell you how delighted I am to be here this morning. I get asked to give lots of speeches and attend lots of events, but this is one I accepted without any hesitation whatsoever, because it’s a great pleasure to be here welcoming Lord Davies’ final report on Women on Boards. Because in the 4 years since his first report, we’ve seen history made with more women on boards than ever before.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved: Cranfield University, the 30% Club, executive search firms, the Women’s Business Council, business leaders and of course the inspiring women who have rightly taken their place in boardrooms across the country.
Most importantly none of this would have been possible without the determination and enthusiasm of Lord Davies and his review group.
You have thrown down the gauntlet to business and pushed them to do more than ever before. And I think even though it’s early in the morning Lord Davies and his team surely deserve a round of applause.
This is a priority for this government
There has never been a better time to talk about gender equality. Whether it’s in living rooms, boardrooms or on our TV screens - more and more people are debating these issues.
And let me be clear, this is a key priority for me and for this government.
The Prime Minister could not have been clearer when he said at Conservative Party Conference ‘You can’t have true opportunity without equality’. And it sends a powerful signal that it was at the CBI conference where he chose to pledge to end the gender pay gap in a generation.
Just this weekend I joined him in announcing further bold steps to end gender inequality:
- we will force larger employers to publish information about their bonus gap as part of their gender pay gap reporting. Bonuses represent over £40 billion each year and we know that women often miss out
- we will extend this commitment to the public sector because it’s only fair that what we ask of business we should expect of ourselves
We have also called for an end to all-male boards anywhere on the FTSE 350. Because it is unacceptable that in this day and age there remain any all-male boards. And I’m sure that we’re all looking forward to the day when not a single one is left!
So I think it’s timely that we stand here together today. I cannot imagine a better time to be discussing the importance of boardroom diversity.
Why this is important
Now, as Lord Davies pointed out in the very first line of his first review: ‘boards perform better when they include the best people who come from a range of perspectives and backgrounds’.
It couldn’t be simpler: diversity leads to better decision making.
The UK is dependent on us better utilising the talents that women offer and capitalising on the wealth of skill and ability that female leaders can bring to our top companies.
The business case is clear: gender diversity is good for boards, good for business and good for the economy. And whilst the economic arguments are of course important, frankly, gender equality is also just the right thing to do.
This is about giving everyone, whether you are a man or a women equal opportunity. This fundamental principle should apply in every workplace, in every sector and in every boardroom.
Role models at the top of business
Women are already breaking new ground and making their mark in the world of business.
It’s worth remembering that in 2011 there were some who said the talent pool from which to draw women board members simply didn’t exist, well how wrong they were!
Just look at inspiring women like Dr Sharon Redrobe - Chief Executive of Twycross Zoo – who recently won Business Woman of the Year, and Ruby McGregor-Smith, who has received a peerage for her business leadership and work with the Women’s Business Council.
And the property management company Grainger recently became the first FTSE company to appoint women to its three most senior board positions.
These women are powerful role models, inspiring other women to follow in their footsteps.
When Lord Davies and his steering group started this ambitious agenda in 2011 women made up just 12.5% of FTSE 100 boards; and just a few years later, we’ve seen that double.
We’ve seen a significant culture change at the heart of British business with 550 women appointed to FTSE 350 boards since 2011.
One of the greatest achievements summed up by Lord Davies in his final report is that business no longer asks why we need to achieve gender diversity, ‘they only ask how to do it’.
Gender diversity is not simply an ‘add-on’ for the HR department to deal with during a quiet period. It is an economic imperative and moral necessity.
Now this dramatic shift in the business landscape has been achieved by setting an ambitious, but not unrealistic, target for business.
One of the greatest aspects of this work has been the fact it is business led. No quotas, no heavy handed legislation - but a determined effort to show businesses the value of making the most of the skills women offer.
Lord Davies’ voluntary, business-led approach has been hugely successful and it is driving long-lasting, cultural change.
The women I speak to say they don’t want special treatment or to feel that they are there as window dressing.
And that when they go for an interview or promotion, they don’t get the inevitable question about ‘how will you juggle family life’, a question which is rarely put to male candidates.
Women simply need a level playing field.
That’s why this government has taken action to support business and break down the barriers preventing many women from reaching the top.
We have introduced the right to request flexible working and shared parental leave. And we will deliver on our commitment to double the free hours of childcare for parents of 3- and 4-year-olds. Because childcare is as important to men as it is to women.
Of course, as Education Secretary I firmly believe that one of the greatest ways to inspire the businesswomen of tomorrow is through education.
Because it is the power of an excellent education that raises aspirations and ignites ambitions.
No one understands this better than Malala Yousafzai who I had the pleasure of meeting earlier this year. Her tireless campaign for female education understands the importance of education in helping girls around the world grow up believing that anything is possible, regardless of their gender, race or background.
Lord Davies final report - next steps
It’s with the backdrop of this success that I welcome Lord Davies’ final report today.
A major milestone has been achieved but we are only half way there.
Because while days like this are an important time to get together and celebrate the progress made, I want to be very clear that for me, this is not ‘job done’.
We must maintain momentum on boardroom diversity. We must go further and ensure that women everywhere can fulfil their potential.
There remain 15 all-male boards in the FTSE 350 and progress has been far too slow in getting more women into Executive Director roles.
That’s why I fully endorse the recommendations of the final report, including a bold new, business-led target of 33% female representation on ALL FTSE 350 boards by 2020 - this is around 350 more women in top positions. And don’t tell me those women are not out there.
And I can also confirm today that we will take forward immediately the recommendation for a new review, with a new independent chair, focusing on the executive pipeline.
With only 9.6% of women represented in Executive Director roles in the FTSE 100 it’s unacceptable that women continue to be an exception when it comes to the most senior leadership positions in business.
We are already seeking advice on who should chair the new review which will address the all-important executive layer immediately below the board.
This is a unique opportunity to ensure that women continue to take their rightful place at the top of British business, and that we have more women coming through at all levels of the talent pipeline. Because we must always keep an eye on developing the next generation of female leaders and leave nothing to chance.
Women in leadership
There is no better time to be talking about women in leadership with the spotlight firmly on this agenda, and with this government firmly on your side.
The final Lord Davies report rightly states that we have seen, and I quote, ‘a near revolution’ in the boardroom.
But as I have said, this is not job done.
And I know that when I speak to you all today, I’m preaching to the converted. But there are still men, and women, out there that we need to convince.
Sheryl Sandberg was absolutely right when she said that ‘real change will come when powerful women are less of an exception’.
The message from the Prime Minister is clear we will ‘finish the fight for real equality in our country’. I am a firm believer that actions speak louder than words and that is why I am passionate about driving this agenda forward, so that together we can continue to make a difference.
100 years on from the suffragette movement and the fight for gender equality continues. We owe it to the female workforce of this country at all levels to be ambitious.