Women (Global Economy): 26th June 2012

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the very thoughtful and extremely well-researched speech that she is giving. Does she agree that one reason why women are not progressing in the way that we would all obviously like them to progress is that for many there is an absolute tension between wanting to have and rear a family and, at the same time, wanting to nurture a career? We have not resolved that tension yet. One reason why we have not resolved it is the cost of child care, which of course went up under the previous Administration. The current Government must address that in a significant way if women at all levels are to make progress at work.

Esther McVey
That was a very pertinent point and well made. Child care is key and needs to be addressed in many ways. It is not just a question of costing it out and paying for it. There could be tax incentives. There could be tax reliefs. We could perhaps start with just women setting up in business or look to help people on the new enterprise allowance. Obviously there will be budget constraints, but we have to think smarter. We have to think about how we will use Government money, but we also have to facilitate women so that they can add to the economy, because a woman’s life is, as we have stated, a complex life. The desire to have children is one of the most basic desires and needs to be fulfilled.
 
Anna Soubry
One change that has occurred in recent times is that the number of child minders has gone down—in my view, because of over-regulation. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must ensure that there is less regulation to enable more people to act as child minders? That would reduce the costs of child care and be much more convenient to a number of women, especially those who do not have the money available to them to put their child in a nursery, to employ a nanny or to use some other rather expensive means of looking after their children.
 
Esther McVey
Absolutely. That is a point well made. I will be raising those issues at the end of my speech so that the Minister can take them forward and see what ​we can do. We believe in market forces and fairness. Obviously, if there are more people prepared to do child minding as a job and support other people, that should bring the costs down. We have to ask why the costs have risen so dramatically and therefore limited women in what they can do. They have to put their ambitions on hold while they look after their family.

As well as considering the support provided and the size and shape of business, we must examine lifelong learning. We must examine education for girls. Helen Fraser, chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust, said:

“We are living in a time of change and flux and it’s almost impossible to predict what the eventual outcome will be. What we can and must do is prepare our young people, and for the certainty of change, ensure they have the skills and attitudes they will need to survive and thrive, and help them (young women especially) develop the resilience to overcome setbacks, whatever happens.

The idea that your education finishes when you leave school or university no longer holds true—today’s young people can expect to learn and re-learn throughout their lives. Additional qualifications, second and even third degrees are likely to become more commonplace as people re-invent themselves and re-energise their careers. And if education is no longer linked only to the early stages in life—to childhood and youth—then developing attitudes that characterise successful learners is just as important as developing knowledge. Learning how to learn, developing physical and mental discipline, being open and engaged with the world, cultivating a true love of learning—these matter as much as knowing facts and figures and formulae.”

The reason why I asked Helen Fraser to contribute a quote to this important debate was not just—I say “just” lightly—that she is chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust, a group of girls’ schools. Before that, she was managing director of a global company, Penguin Books. Therefore I felt that she had seen both sides of the coin. She has been a mum and wife and a successful business woman, and now is a business woman again in the world of education.

Following on from that, Professor Lesley Yellowlees, president-elect of the Royal Society of Chemistry—the first woman to be elected president in its 171-year history—says:

“The UK needs a highly skilled workforce, particularly if we are going to make headway in these bleak economic times. More and more young women are studying science at university to the point where we have a near 50-50 balance in chemistry.

The problem today is not women entering science, but keeping them there and retaining all those skills and talent that can and does make a massive contribution to the global economy.

For the chemical sciences, that contribution is worth £258 billion, or 21 per cent, to the country’s GDP, according to an independent report the RSC commissioned in 2010.

Women are playing a greater role in science than ever before—but we can do much more. This is just one of the areas I will be focusing on as I begin my two-year term next month as the first female President of the Royal Society of Chemistry.”

She says that she will make helping women not just to get into science but to stay there a key issue. She will be doing that through role models.

Maxine Benson, a co-founder of everywoman, says:

“GenderDiversity isn’t just a nice thing to have; it is the solution to a business loss. Businesses with fewer women on the board make 42% lower return on sales, 66% lower return on”

investment​

“capital and 53% lower return on equity. The differing attitudes to risk and governance means that having a female board member cuts your company’s chances of going bust by up to 20%.

The retention and promotion of talented women at senior levels is one of the simplest, most…effective and easiest methods of dramatically improving your business’s bottom line.”

All those things must be taken into account. People must appreciate and understand the differences between men and women, embrace those differences and bring them on board, because only then will they truly understand the benefit of having more women in key positions.

I want to move away from the business world to look at global leaders, because they are key. Women are coming of age as global leaders. Things are shifting. We have gone into a financially chaotic period, and women are coming through in places experiencing war-torn upheaval. We cannot talk about female leaders and understand them, or have today’s debate, without referring to Nobel prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, who spoke in Parliament last week. She was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1991 for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights. She is one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades and has become an important symbol in the struggle against oppression. The Nobel committee gave her the peace prize for her unflagging efforts and to show its support for the many people throughout the world striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation in peaceful times.

We also need to refer to the latest Noble peace prize, which went jointly to three women: Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; Liberian peace advocate, Leymah Gbowee; and Tawakkol Karman, a leading figure in the Yemeni pro-democracy movement. They were all recognised

“for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”.

I would argue that women’s mothering and nurturing predisposition helps in non-violent struggles, with co-operation, consensual understanding and empathy; perhaps, like a mother for a child, there is the same love for supporters and country, and they could take their country and the struggle of the nation to a new phase of development.

Professor Parveen Kumar, the president of the Royal Society of Medicine, professor of medicine and education at Barts in London and the leading light in global health, wrote the definitive medical textbook used all round the world, including Asia and Africa. She is trying to take on new technology to distribute it as cheaply as possible to emerging nations. She set in motion active support and engagement with Royal Society members—all 23,000—so that they could help and support some of the most needy people in the world. She analysed the health statistics on child and infant mortality, and, with Carolyn Miller, chief executive of the international health charity, Merlin, assisted Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to raise health standards, provide books, support and a new wing of a hospital, and to teach, not only doctors, but, this year, the first cohort of midwifery qualifications. As Professor Kumar and Carolyn Miller say, helping women globally is key—if you help and educate a women, you help the family, the child and the next generation.

If we put together a picture of women globally, we see that it is not only about finance, the support that they give others or education. They are not necessarily ​driven by high status or the turnover of a business, but appear to be a cohesive glue. A woman will be the mother of every child who ever populates the earth. Through that, they seem to act more laterally and less hierarchically. They seem to reach out to fill the vacuum that might be left in society.

I want to talk about global communicators.

Anna Soubry
Before my hon. Friend moves on to the next subject, would she agree with me about charities? I am slightly connected with Women for Women, which raises a considerable amount of money to invest in women in what are often war-torn countries. It recognises that one way to restore broken lives and families, including in areas of strife, is to empower and enable women to work and rebuild families. That charitable work is to be commended.

Esther McVey
Absolutely, it is indeed. We can see such efforts in many organisations, of which that is one, where women come together to build lives, help co-operation and make the world a better place, as they perceive it, for their children and the next generation. Part of that message has to be about communication; getting the story to the outside world and telling the tales of women that might not otherwise be heard can help.

The formidable Christina Lamb is possibly one of our best war journalists. She said that she always thought that she would help people, perhaps providing assistance and support as a doctor, but she turned out to be a journalist, travelling the world providing a voice for particularly women, families and children, who would not otherwise have one. In doing so, she has told their stories around the globe and got them the medical help, the medicine and the support and protection that they required. In her own way, she has been a healer.

I make special reference to Boni Sones, who set up Parliamentary Radio to link women and women MPs not only in the UK but around the globe. She says:

“Women journalists in the UK and women across party in the British Parliament have been using new technology and new journalistic practices to talk about the issues they have been championing to improve the lives of the women and families they represent in their constituencies. They are now trying, via a BlackBerry applications to ‘link in’ women in Parliaments across the Globe to their web based radio station so that they then broadcast stories”

and success stories, not only about them, but about other women across the globe. She continues:

“The World is indeed becoming ‘flat’ as new media allows new connections like this one to take place. Previously broadcasters required FM frequencies and line-bookings, now the internet and mobile phones like the BlackBerry device can allow programme makers to broadcast all over the World.”

Boni is a visionary. She set up that project in Parliament, but she is seeking to make global links to tell stories across the world.

It is important to celebrate women’s achievements. That in itself can provide role models, allowing others to see what has been achieved and what women, too, could achieve. I want to talk specifically about Merseyside women of the year. The award is ten years old this year, and the ceremony will take place on Friday. It began as a very small event looking at women in business, but grew and grew with the formidable courage of the ladies involved and did not remain just about business.​

I am struck by the various avenues and fields that the award has covered: charity, learning, support and media. Past winners include Claire Lara, the chef; Lisa Collins, the business woman; Pauline Daniels, the stand-up comedian; Kim Cattrall, the actress—yes, she came from Merseyside too—Edwina Currie; and Carla Lane. A plethora of women have won the award, which is supported by three incredible women: Jean Gadsby, Ellen Kerr and Elaine Owen, who have come together and supported the award. This year—the 10th year—they are taking it to the next level. They want to support and fund women. They are putting a bursary together to do that for the next generation of women.

There are things to be asked of the Government. I have spoken at length about the various things that women do and achieve but, as has been touched on, we need role models for women—visible signs of female accomplishment. Something simple that Boni Sones wanted was pictures of women, even in Parliament, or in the National gallery, celebrating success. The images of women constantly before us do not show them in successful, powerful roles, but in weaker, consumer or sexualised roles. A few more paintings would seem a meagre request.

Anna Soubry
Is not that one of the peculiarities and tensions of the issue? Speaking—forgive me, Mr Turner—as an old feminist, I suggest that one of the ironies of the feminist movement is that in this day and age arguably there is even more pressure on young women to aspire to a certain body image. Equally, we have a terrible celebrity culture. We could have good, strong role models for women, but young women aspire to what the media too often put forward. That does not advance women in society. In many ways it has taken us back decades.

Esther McVey
I would completely agree, as would many young girls. The 2010 survey by Girlguiding UK examined what was forming girls’ attitudes to work and what was driving and motivating them to take up jobs. It was what they saw in the media; and usually the jobs were powerless ones. In 2010, it was still a major ambition of girls to be a hairdresser, rather than an engineer, because that was what they saw. The ambition was to be a beautician rather than a scientist, to be a WAG rather than a lawyer, to be someone’s other half rather than to achieve in their own right.

Anna Soubry
Does my hon. Friend agree that, despite the fact that she received a lot of criticism, there was much merit in the speech by Cherie Blair last week? She identified a problem with the aspirations of too many young women, who aim just to marry a rich man, and see that as the be-all and end-all of their lives. In the same way, unfortunately, the only aspiration of a number of very young women in our society is still to be a mother. That is why we have such a high teenage pregnancy rate. They see nothing else in their lives besides having a baby.

Esther McVey
When I go round schools, one of the key things that I say is “What would you like to achieve for yourself? It is great if you get the perfect partner and have children. Those are other things, and part of your life; but what are you doing with your life? How will you shape and craft it? Should your husband leave you, what will you do? When your kids eventually grow ​up, as they do—and there is a massive vacuum in a mother’s life when a child leaves—what will you do; and how can you fulfil your aim?” Sometimes, when I am speaking to 12 to 18-year-olds, that all seems so far away. Tomorrow seems far away. When I am speaking on a Monday, Friday night seems a long time away. Nevertheless, I try to make that point.

I hope that she will not mind my mentioning this story, but I always tell the girls I speak to about Debbie Moore. It is funny in hindsight; but so many things seem funny in hindsight. She was a successful model and at 19 married the man who would have been the love of her life, a photographer. She thought that was it; her life was perfect. She had peaked. Two years on, it was their second wedding anniversary. He went off to work and she waved him goodbye, knowing she had a magnificent celebration prepared for him when he came home that night. She waited, and he did not come home. The next morning he still did not. He had run away and dumped her for a younger model. She was only 21 and he had run off with a 19-year-old girl.

She suffered turmoil, devastation and upset, of course, and through the stress a thyroid imbalance set in, so she ballooned, then lost weight. That was not conducive to a modelling career, because she would arrive at an interview one size, and arrive at the photo shoot another size. When she asked the doctors if there were potions or pills to help her, they said that there were not, but that possibly gentle exercise would suit her. She said, “I hate the gym, and I hate jogging. Oh, but I don’t mind dancing.” She took up dancing and learned more and more. From that beginning she set up the Pineapple dance studio and dance clothes range, and became the first woman to set up a public limited company. She always says that the best opportunities can come from the greatest adversity. It is a question of what people do with them. Who would think, she asks, that after all the devastation and upset, she would, many years after the event, thank the man who left her, because he made her a multi-millionairess? I try to emphasise to girls that the question is not what someone else can do for them, but what they can do for themselves.

A list of the percentage of women in business and in various careers shows that they account for only 22% of MPs, peers and Cabinet members. Women have 35% of senior civil service places; 9% of Supreme Court justices are women. They account for 45% of general practitioners, 31% of NHS consultants, and 19% of university professors. There is much that can be done to change that, but the question to ask is “What do you want to do; what do you need to fulfil in yourself? There are a plethora of jobs out there; what do you feel would fulfil your potential and aspirations?” To go back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), seeing women purely as glamorous, sexualised beings has many ramifications. If women are thought of only in visual terms, rather than in terms of what is in them, that takes away their power. That stunts their aspirations, because they do not see women in powerful positions; they see them only as an addition to someone else.

Chief Guide Gill Slocombe said:

“We believe that today’s young women have enormous potential to promote change at a local, national and international level. This belief is further backed up with the results of our Women in ​the Lead survey which showed that an amazing two thirds of award-winning women have previously been a Brownie, Guide or member of the Senior Section.

Therefore we call upon all those involved in public life to join us in ensuring that they play their role in providing opportunities to enable young women to exercise their power, make their voices heard and strengthen their role in the global economy.”

To return to what I ask of the Government, the issues are role models, visible signs of accomplishment, and child support, for women and children. Greater family and pre-family support and education is a key thing, so that, as early as possible, women fully understand the life-changing choice of whether to have a child. Other issues are support for women setting up businesses—women are nearly five times more likely to cite family reasons for setting up a career—and support for female-run businesses, although I do not exclude male-run businesses, which should have support too. Access to finance for business is also relevant to both males and females, but particularly to women, because usually they start off with much lower capitalisation. They have humbler aspirations and desires, and are more than happy to start off with less money. Equally, they take fewer gambles, so they will have done more research when they set up a business, and they ask for less money. We feel that more mentoring support is key.

I will close today with a quote from my colleague and good friend, Bettany Hughes, who is an award-winning historian and broadcaster, and a research fellow at King’s College London. She said:

“The oldest surviving 3D sculpture in the world, 40,000 years old and carved from the tusk of a woolly mammoth, is of a woman. For the next 40,000 years, close on 92% of all extant human figures are of the female form—telling us that when homo sapiens tried to work out what it was to be human, the female of the species was conspicuous not by her absence but by her presence. In this epoch human-kind invented religion, cities, farming, tools, philosophy, democracy…the list is endless. Archaeology and history show us that throughout this massive bulk of human experience—from 400,000 BC to around 400 AD—women have enjoyed substantial standing and influence and sway in society. Plato opined, ‘Nothing can be more absurd than the practice that prevails in our country of men and women not following the same pursuits with all their strength and with one mind, because when this happens, the state, instead of being a whole, is reduced to a half.’ How true. Why choose to live in the half world of Plato’s imagining when we can flourish in a full one?

The word Man comes from…‘Manu’ meaning mind or thought. Mankind is a global community not of humans with an excess of the Y chromosome, but of creatures who think. We, both man and woman, think best together. This is not a plea from 50% of the population—but a recommendation for all 100%. Both male and female can draw comfort from this truth—I think and therefore I am, a man.”

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) on securing this debate. As I have mentioned before, I support much of what she says. I also congratulate her on her careful thought, the construction of her speech and her considerable research.

I will not speak for long; unfortunately, I am sitting on the Defamation Bill, which starts at 10.30. I should not say “unfortunately”, because it is always a great pleasure to sit on a Public Bill Committee, but I will have to keep my comments short.​

Obviously, I speak as a woman. I am an old feminist and the mother of two daughters, aged 20 and 21. All my life, I have been opposed to any form of stereotyping, whether it is based on gender, sexual preferences, colour of skin, race, religion or whatever.

Although I agree with so much of what my hon. Friend said, I just put into the mix a little bit of caution. I accept that as a woman, my biology means that there will be some natural urge or instinct to have a child. As a mother, therefore, I realise that many of us have mothering instincts. However, there is a danger of saying that all the great attributes of someone such as Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, come from the fact that she is a woman. I take the view that she has a steely determination, which is found in both women and men. Her nature to care and to make considerable self-sacrifice is not because she is a mother but because she is a great human being, and both men and women have those attributes. There is a danger if we say that women have a particular side of them that lends itself to the more nurturing and caring professions.

Those of us who have practised law will remember the days—I am certainly old enough to—when as young female barristers we were undoubtedly encouraged to practise in the family law division. There was an assumption that we would want to do so. When I first went to the Bar, more than 30 years ago, it was difficult for women to advance not only within the profession but at the criminal Bar because it was seen as a combative arena, which indeed it is, and not the sort of arena that women would want to engage in.

Esther McVey
My role model was a woman called Rose Heilbron, who went to my school. She was the first woman to get a first in law from Liverpool, to get a first at Gray’s Inn and to do a murder trial. When the male criminal, who was up for murder, saw her, he said, “My God, I knew things were bad, but now I have seen who is representing me, I see things are worse.”

Rose’s desire to go into the law came from a desire to help other people. It was a case of, “There but for the grace of God go I”. She had been a refugee. Her desire to support others and to ensure that everybody had access to the law was what motivated her. Although I agree that women are not the only part of the population to have these caring, nurturing and mothering beliefs, many studies have linked those qualities with the fact that we give birth. They say that our biological differences are the key motivating factor for why women take up a job and pursue a profession. More than 80% of social enterprises involve women, and that is down to our biological differences.

Anna Soubry
I am extremely grateful for that intervention from my hon. Friend who has researched the matter and clearly knows a great deal more than me. Although I agree with much of what she says, I want to add a note of caution so that those who perhaps do not fully support the advancement of women or the feminist cause do not rely too much on our natural instincts as mothers, nurturers and carers to say, “That is all well and good and that is where you should stay.”

Let me return to the point I was making before my hon. Friend’s intervention. When I returned to the Bar, some 20 years ago, I was struck by how much its ​attitude had changed—not only to background, school, the colour of skin, race and religion, but to women. There had been a great advancement of women at the criminal Bar. We are now reaching the point when almost half of the people at the criminal Bar are women, which is to be celebrated. Women are just as capable as any man at either prosecuting or defending in criminal cases, however difficult that case may be.

I will not delay you for much longer, Mr Turner, but I want to reiterate this point about child care. There is a very real need, especially among those who are not particularly well paid, to return to the world of work. The reasons for that are often economic, but not always. This may not be understood by some men, but many women want to go back to work not just because they want to earn the money, but because they want the social side and the interaction that comes from it. At the moment, however, we have a profound problem in our country. A number of women, on finishing their maternity leave, look at the cost of returning to work and find that the amount of money that they will earn is the same as what they will have to expend on child care. We need to tackle that.

Finally, mentoring was mentioned by my hon. Friend. How right she was. Certainly at the Bar, there were mentoring schemes to help women. Mentoring is an admirable scheme and works especially well for women.