Thank you Mary [Macleod MP] for that kind introduction and for hosting tonight’s event (22 September 2014). And thanks too to Lloyds and Sapphire Partners for bringing together the incredible wealth of female talent that we see before us. I’m delighted to be here.
This is one occasion where there’s little need for me, as Minister for Women, to make the business case for gender equality. Your achievements speak for themselves. Across a range of sectors and stages of the journey - from that first board position to chairing a plc - you are living proof, if any was needed, of why businesses are better off when they reflect the societies they serve.
And it’s a view that’s gaining increasing currency at the highest levels. The Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has, for example spoken about his desire to see a woman become governor for the first time. He was recently quoted as saying that:
Hiring more women in senior roles makes us much, much more effective.
I couldn’t agree more. Which is why it’s wonderful to be celebrating your success tonight alongside partners like Sapphire, which has done so much to champion women in business. And also Lloyds, which has set such ambitious targets for recruiting women at a senior level.
I understand that Antonio [Horta-Osorio, CEO, Lloyds Banking Group] can be a very determined man. I hear that doctors once told him that that he would never play tennis again after breaking his right wrist. The natural next step, of course, was for Antonio to teach himself to play with his left hand - before eventually reverting back to his right hand.
With such single-minded advocates - of both sexes - on side, I’m confident that there’s no limit to what we can achieve. Everywhere you look, women are breaking new ground and making their mark:
- in the appointment of Rona Fairhead as the new Chairwoman of the BBC Trust
- in the unveiling, just a few days ago, of Veronique Laury as the new Chief Executive of Kingfisher
- in the awarding of the Fields Medal to Maryam Mirzakhani - the first woman to win the most prestigious accolade in maths
And in the great strides that millions of women are making every day, in every area of business. There are more women working in this country than ever before. In fact, in the last year, the UK has seen the fastest growth in the number of women in work out of all the G7 economies. And there are also more women represented at higher levels of management.
For the first time, this country now has a woman on every FTSE 100 board. Only 30 more women are needed to reach Lord Davies’ target next year - of women making up 25% of company boards. This is a real breakthrough and a source of immense pride for me. A towering tribute to the ability and hard work of the women concerned. And a powerful demonstration of just what’s possible when the commitment is there from government and business - to work together to grow the pool of female talent and break down the barriers that stop women progressing.
One of the best examples of this has been our work with the Women’s Business Council, which includes some very impressive business leaders - women who volunteer their time to do this on top of their day jobs. Their tireless efforts have helped take forward many important recommendations, especially when it comes to opening up opportunities for women at all stages of their careers. At the same time, we in government are making it easier for women to start and grow their own businesses.
For instance, our challenge fund is providing £1 million of support for female entrepreneurs to develop the skills to run businesses online. All this work is beginning to pay off, with a notable increase in the number of SMEs run by women. About 20% are now run either solely or mostly by women, up from 14% in 2008.
So there are real grounds for optimism. But too many women still face obstacles that make it hard to balance their work and home life. It goes without saying no woman should have to choose between their career and their family.
That’s why we’re committed to making life easier for working mums - through measures such as flexible working and the introduction, next year, of shared parental leave and tax-free childcare worth up to £2,000 per child. Almost 2 million eligible families stand to benefit from this crucial support towards childcare costs, including, for the first time, those who are self employed - providing a significant boost for female entrepreneurs.
And alongside greater choice and greater support, we’re also championing greater transparency to address the gender pay gap. One of the ways we’re doing this is through our Think, Act, Report initiative, which encourages firms to:
- actively look at how their female employees are faring
- take action to address any issues
- report on their progress
More than 200 companies covering over 2 million workers have signed up so far. I’m hopeful that many more follow in their footsteps.
Because as all of us here know, this mission to create a fairer workplace isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s the only thing to do if you want to attract, recruit and retain the best female talent.
It’s essential for women who want to unlock their potential, for companies who want to prosper and - as the economy picks up - for our country’s future. Events like tonight’s reception are a testament to just how far we’ve come.
There’s still much more to do - not just in business, but also in public life. I’m very aware that there aren’t nearly enough women in politics and Parliament. I know that Mary and many others are working hard to put that right, and I’m behind them all the way.
Nevertheless, we should never lose the opportunity to shout about how women like you are succeeding. You are the role models that our daughters need to believe that every career is open to them - to see that someone like them has made it.
I want to congratulate you once again for everything you’ve achieved - and to also ask you to carry on sharing your success stories, supporting each other and, crucially, shining a light for the generation to come.