It seems barely a day goes by without another crack appearing in the glass ceiling. This week, I found it particularly fitting that at the same time as record numbers of young women collected A-Level results in science subjects traditionally the preserve of men, Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman to win the highest accolade in maths, the Fields Medal. Just days later, in front of a record audience, the England Women’s Rugby team lifted the World Cup for the first time in twenty years. From the lecture theatre and the board room to the sports field, women are continuing to break new ground, and the government is on their side.
There are more women working in this country than at any other point in history. More are working full time; in the last year alone 350,000 extra women have been employed, giving them greater financial security. Women are making great strides in all areas of business and it is a source of great pride to me that thanks to a sustained campaign from this government and the commitment of companies, this country now has a woman on every FTSE 100 board. Alongside this, there has been a huge increase in the number of SMEs run by women, with 20 per cent of SMEs now run either solely or mostly by women, and last week we launched the Home Business initiative to help more entrepreneurs. These developments highlight a significant shift in women’s place in modern Britain.
However, there is still much more to do and I am committed to using my position as Minister for Women and Equalities to ensure that our long term economic plan continues to deliver for women and their families.
That’s why I want to see more done to address the gender pay gap. While the gap has all but disappeared for women under 40, we all need to do more to reduce it – for women of every age, at all levels of employment.
Our Think, Act, Report initiative is one way we’re doing this – encouraging business to take action by looking at the roles of women within their companies, comparing themselves to others, and setting meaningful targets to improve. This week saw the 200th company sign up and commit themselves to greater transparency around gender equality at work. These businesses recognise the benefits of this, helping them to attract, recruit and retain female talent.
We know that maternity discrimination by businesses continues; this is unacceptable and more needs to be done to combat it. We have recently announced £1 million to help the Equality and Human Rights Commission understand the extent of the problem, and report to us on how we can banish it entirely.
I strongly believe that no woman should have to choose between their career and their family and every woman should be able to decide whether they want to return to work after having children. We know that nearly a quarter of women have reported that they would increase their working hours if they could access good quality childcare. This isn’t just unfair to those women; it also means that the British economy loses out on a significant pool of female talent.
To tackle this, our government has already introduced legislation for Tax Free Childcare, which will come into effect next year alongside shared parental leave. Almost 2 million working families could benefit from up to £2,000 of support towards childcare costs and for the first time this government has made sure this support will be offered to those who are self-employed, doing more to help female entrepreneurs.
Organisations such as the 30% Club and the Women’s Business Council, led by Helena Morrissey and Ruby McGregor-Smith, are vital to supporting and inspiring women. I have gained a huge amount from watching successful female role models and I want to see more successful women, who’ve broken down barriers, offer their support and encouragement by sharing their experiences and mentoring other women. We have already recruited more than 6,000 additional women to be business mentors, and we’re also championing the Your Life campaign, to get more women studying science and maths subjects which are the pathway to a successful future. But I would like successful women from all walks of life to take on this role, through initiatives like Inspiring Women, which gets women talking to the next generation of girls about their lives and careers.
Clearing up the mess that the last Labour Government left behind hasn’t been easy. But we are starting to turn the corner and are now growing faster than any other major Western economy. This is a fantastic achievement, and the role women have played in all sectors of the economy in the upturn cannot be underestimated.
My ambition as Minister for Women and Equalities is to work towards a Britain where those young women who picked up their exam results last week are able to smash through the glass ceiling and embark on the next stage of their journey, with absolutely no limit on their aspiration.