Women need more female role models to unlock their potential in work

Maria Miller
INCREASING the number of women in the boardroom isn’t about political correctness – it’s about good business sense. It’s absurd that in the twenty-first century we should even need to debate whether we should change this imbalance. Britain’s prosperity is the loser if half our population’s talent lies fallow. As we reflect on the remarkable legacy of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female Prime Minister and a woman who changed the landscape of not only the UK but the world, it’s more vital than ever that we challenge perceptions around the role of women and the barriers that can limit them.

Lord Davies’s second progress report into the question of women on boards, published yesterday, shows that women now make up more than 17 per cent of board places within the FTSE 100, up from just over 12 per cent two years ago. Only six all-male boards remain. Notably, this has happened without resorting to quotas, which Europe keeps trying to impose upon us, and which this government has consistently opposed.

Harnessing women’s economic potential is vital to the UK’s future. Women are proving to be the engine room of the UK’s economic recovery. Two thirds of women are in work – more than ever before. The number of women employed is a third of a million higher than when the coalition came to office. But to maximise Britain’s economic prospects, we need to remove barriers at every level in the workplace. To give you an example: 60 per cent of graduates are female – yet women only represent 46 per cent of the workforce. So if we want to harness Britain’s full potential, we need to remedy this imbalance and waste of talent.

Change is taking place, but women are still hampered by inequalities in the workplace. The business case has been made time and time again, and yet while the gender pay gap is falling, there is still a long way to go. Many women still experience barriers when looking to get ahead – including lack of female role models, the cost of childcare, lack of workplace flexibility, and a lack of transparency around recruitment for senior positions.

Tackling these inequalities is therefore not just crucial for our generation but for future generations of women. That’s why the government is extending shared parental leave and the right to request flexible working, to try and ensure that women’s careers do not stall at the nursery gate. And to ensure that in 10 to 20 years’ time we have more female role models, we need to inspire the next generation to achieve their potential.

It may come as no surprise that the most common job among young men is working in the building trades. Among 20-something women, it is working in retail sales. We must reshape those kinds of outdated pigeonholes, where Jack works with a hammer, and Jill works in haberdashery.

The trend is in the right direction. The priority now is to maintain momentum, because the equalities agenda isn’t just about women in the boardroom. It’s also about unlocking the untapped potential of women in the workforce more widely, priming the talent pipeline, bringing sustained benefit to the British economy in the longer term.