Ahead of International Women's Day today, Parliament held a debate to discuss the issues women face around the world. As I work on both the Women and Equalities Select Committee, and the All-party group on Women and Work, I have strong views on this, which I set out in my speech in the Commons:
Thank you Mr Speaker.
I am delighted to have opportunity to speak in this important debate.
This year’s UN theme for International Women’s Day is ‘Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50:50 by 2030’ and the global theme is ‘Be Bold for Change’.
2030 is only 13 years away, and there is much to be done.
The Prime Minister has called the gender pay gap a ‘burning injustice’ in the differences in earning power between men and women and I could not agree more.
We still have some way to go in changing the world of work in the UK.
British women still have 71% of the economic opportunity that men have.
Internationally, we are also not achieving what we should. Yes, there are other countries doing much worse, but the UK should be a leader in this area – sadly, it is not. The UN Sustainable Development Goal 5 talks about gender equality as a world issue.
It is a sad statistic that between 1995 and 2015 global female labour force participation decreased from 52.4% to 49.6%. Only 69% of women are employed in the UK compared to 78% of men.
Worldwide, the chances of women participating in the labour market remains almost 27% less than those of men – even more so in Southern Asia and Eastern Asia.
The global gender pay gap is 25.5%, but the UK gender pay gap is 19.2%. Not something to be proud of.
Women earn more than men between ages 22 and 29 but when they turn 30, men significantly outstrip their female counterparts and this widens further when they reach their 40s. So we cannot lecture other countries around the world that we have got it better.
At current trends, it will take 70 years to close the global gender wage gap, but our government has vowed to reduce it within a generation. If we are going to ‘Be Bold for Change’ we are going to have to look very hard at where we can make a difference. One of the ways of addressing this is by looking at older women in the workplace and I want to focus on women returning to work, particularly older women.
One of the findings from the Gender Pay Gap inquiry, that the Women and Equalities Select Committee found, is that women who have been out of the workplace for more than 6 months find it difficult to get back into employment. The longer they are out of work, the harder it is.
So I set up the Women and Work All Party Group with my Honourable Friend for Birmingham Yardley to look at the barriers to work. Our group has proved to be incredibly popular; we have standing room only at most of our meetings, so there is a definite need still, and I wish it was not so, to help women in the workplace.
Our first APPG inquiry was about women returning to work and we published our report in January. It seems that this has struck a chord with employers and women up and down the country.
There are some very good examples of companies that are already doing it. But we need to do much more to get people on board and see the wisdom of tapping into older women employees, full of life experience and work-related experience, keen to get back into work. Companies that cannot see the potential are, in my view, missing a big trick.
Put quite simply: there is a huge pool of talent out there. People take time out of the workplace for all sorts of reasons, but the biggest one is caring responsibilities whether it is for children or elderly relations.
Some people, like myself, took time out because we think that parenting is the most important job in the world and wanted to take responsibility for bringing up the next generation.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with that view.
I was lucky to be in the financial position of having the choice – although really I had no choice, as I had 4 children in 5 years and it was highly unlikely that anyone wanted to employ me or that I could afford the childcare.
I trained as an Ofsted inspector when my youngest was a year old, but I could not have afforded childcare. I relied on my mother, but not everyone has a mother who is prepared to drop everything to look after their grandchildren and I was lucky.
For others, childcare costs are an enormous barrier for parents who want to return to work. 30 hours of free childcare will help, but I fear that too many women and men are not taking time out to look after their children because they are worried about getting back into work.
It is a huge financial commitment to take time out of the workplace, but more would be prepared to make that choice, if they knew that they would not struggle to get back into work at a later date, and families would be in a better place to budget, too.
The more social investment and measures that governments can put in place to balance work and family commitments for both men and women will help recognise the importance of looking after children.
I am pleased that this government has recognised much of this in its policies, but we need to take it further. For instance, in our Group’s report we found that few people were taking up Shared Parental Leave: just 1% of men are taking it up. It was considered complicated and unwieldy.
There is little recognition of the work that women – and it is predominantly women – do when they were at home.
Very few women are not doing something positive and important outside their caring responsibilities, whether it is getting involved in their Parent Teacher Association or with local charities, as well as managing the family finances and logistics.
We have to stop this idea that just because you have taken time out of the workplace, you are any less capable. My heart sinks when people dismiss mothers or fathers that are staying at home – what is more important than bringing up the next generation? It should be treated as equally important as those parents that are going back to work.
To get a little technical, Point 4 of the Sustainable Development Goal 5 states as a target that we should:
“recognise and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies, and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate.’
A bit of a mouthful, but an important one nonetheless, because it states that if we recognise this unpaid element as a value to our society it should be much easier for women who have taken a break from the workplace to be employed.
So here I want to put in an extra plug for older women who have much to contribute. Many women who have been out of the workforce for some time have lost confidence and don’t know where to start. There are several organisations that are addressing this and we were grateful for people like Julianne Miles, the co-founder of Women Returners, who contributed to our report.
Companies need to be flexible in their approach and in their conditions. They must not see a gap in CVs as a barrier and show a reluctance to employ someone. They need to provide training or apprenticeships and encouragement to get women back into the workplace.
If we are going to live longer, it is worth investing in older people. Pensions – gender inequalities at work result in gender gaps in access to social protection, in particular, pensions. Globally, women above retirement age receive a pension that is 10.6% lower than men.
Nearly 65% of people around the world without a pension are women. In the UK, Women are in a far worse situation than men, with 20 per cent saying they have no pension savings compared to just 7 per cent of men.
History tells us that women are less likely to have built up full state pension entitlements than men, as many will have incomplete working records thanks to time out of work to raise children and look after elderly parents.
This makes it even more important that there are opportunities for older women to get back into the workplace.
Some very good work going on around the country. Other organisations can learn from them. I understand that it is difficult for smaller companies, but women returning to work will be loyal, and work hard. Employing older women and men is a huge economic opportunity, especially if we are going to live until we are 90 - as the predications are for South Korea.
We must allow people, men and women, to take time out of the workplace for caring responsibilities, value that work and make sure there are opportunities when they need to return.
I challenge all companies:
Be Bold for Change and lead the way!