Good news yesterday from the Department for Work and Pensions with the monthly unemployment and employment statistics indicating that we are on the right track. Economic recovery is inevitably a horribly long process but figures like these support the idea that, yes, the economy is slowly starting to heal. A quarter of the deficit has been cleared, and the private sector has created over a million new jobs.
180,000 more women in work than a year ago
But within this, there’s also some really cheering news for me, as Minister for Women and Equalities. That’s because, below the headline figures we learn that women’s employment continues to rise – to 13.7 million – which is the best part of 180,000 more than was the case a year ago.
And that, by the way, is equivalent to two Wembley Stadiums full of people. Imagine that. At the same time, women’s unemployment has fallen too, and now stands at a little over a million. Still too high, I know, but 10,000 fewer than in the last quarter.
Most people in work are not aspiring Lord Sugars or Hilary Deveys
But, although there are more women in work than ever before, and this is to be welcomed warmly, there are still real barriers to women entering and progressing in work. These have to be addressed, and I mean to do just that.
And I’m not simply talking about female representation in boardrooms. It’s just as important to look at how things work in the levels below the very top. The overwhelming majority of people in work – men and women – are not aspiring Lord Sugars or Hilary Deveys, admirable and inspiring though both unquestionably are.
What most people want is a job that’s interesting, enjoyable and allows them the time and opportunity to lead a full and happy life, either as part of a family or in any other context that works for them.
Quotas? No thank you
And as for the idea, sometimes floated in Europe, that there should be quotas, requiring companies to have women occupying 40 per cent of the places on their boards – with sanctions and penalties for those who fall short – I can only offer an emphatic ‘no thank you’. We made our views clear on this last time it was brought to the EU, and our stance hasn’t changed.
A collaborative approach
Instead of imposing quotas or regulation to encourage an increase, we believe in a collaborative approach with companies, making the business case for diversity. And I’m pleased to report that this approach is working – in the past six months, women have represented 44 per cent of FTSE100 Board appointments.
But for all that, it’s daft to ignore the difficulties that real women have in the workplace, particularly those who want to return to work after having a baby. My experience is that whenever women get together to talk about the prospect of going back to work in these circumstances, it’s a fair bet that the one worry that unites them all, regardless of their background or income, will be a single question: what am I going to do about childcare?
If a mother can’t be as close to 100 per cent sure that her child is safe and well cared for, her chances of working effectively can dwindle to nothing.
It’s having the choice that makes the difference
And for every woman – and there are far too many, I fear – that ends up abandoning the world of work because there are just no childcare options available, other than mum staying at home, there can all too often be another missed opportunity for the personal fulfilment I mentioned earlier. Which is not to denigrate or dismiss stay-at-home mums. It’s having the choice that makes the difference. And it’s not having the choice that stifles ambition.
So a big priority for me as Secretary of State in the government with responsibility for women and equality, has been to see what can be done to address this. I’m beginning with a new £2 million scheme to provide grants to help people wanting to set up a nursery or child-minding business in England. From next April, grants of up to £500 will be available to help cover things like legal and insurance costs, training, equipment and adaptations to premises.
Up to 6,000 more childcare businesses
This could lead to as many as 6,000 more childcare businesses getting off the ground. And this could be an especially neat win-win, because the businesses themselves will provide jobs themselves, as well as helping to get their clients back to work. And the great majority of the new jobs created in the sector will, on past experience, go to women.
Drive and initiative
Another thing I like about this kind of solution is that it goes with the grain of how people – and not just women – prefer to operate. There’s no compulsion in it, no externally imposed requirement that puts a burden on businesses which, in many cases, are finding it hard simply to keep their heads above water. The grants will complement people’s drive and initiative as they set up childcare businesses, and help provide a genuine and much-needed service for employees and employers alike.
But the wider point here, as I said at the beginning of this piece, is to do with the position that women occupy in our society as a whole and in the workplace in particular. We’re serious about this and our childcare business grant initiative comes on top of a package of measures that the Government is taking forward to boost childcare, including extending the right to request flexible working to all employees and allowing parents to share up to a year’s leave to care for their new born child.
So we’re on the way to creating the conditions in which a truly fair and equal society can exist. There’s much still to do, and I can’t wait to get on with it.