International Women’s Day

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for bringing this important debate before us and for her opening remarks. It was Rosa Parks who said that, “knowing what must be done does away with fear”, and her quiet determination not to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 was the catalyst for the civil rights movement. It is perhaps not a coincidence that it was a woman—indeed, a black woman—who symbolically gave birth to one of the greatest ever freedom and equality movements. Gender and race often go hand in hand in the struggle for equality. Since Montgomery, much has been said and done about these issues but there is still more to be achieved. As Rosa Parks said, we need to act on what we know must be done.

One of the strongest female role models in my life was my mother, who came to Britain from Jamaica. She worked as an auxiliary nurse. She used to tell me, “John, being black is not a profession. Make sure you get a good education”. Once, in sheer desperation, when I was about 10, I retorted, “Mum, you’re just picking on me because I’m black”. That argument failed to resonate with my mother. I cannot think why.

There are numerous women of colour who have historically overcome the obstacles of racism and issues connected to gender. They include Mary Seacole, the Crimean War nurse, and the black suffragette, Sarah Parker Remond. Although overdue, last year the first statue of a woman was unveiled in Parliament Square, alongside a line-up of male leaders. This was of the suffragette campaigner Millicent Fawcett. Will the Minister explain what plans the Government have to ensure that more women are represented in this way in our public places?

As we celebrate the centenary of women in Parliament, my American wife Laura was keen to remind me that the first woman to take her seat as an MP in the House of Commons, in 1919, was Nancy Astor, originally from the United States. Turning to more recent times, as a journalist I interviewed some inspirational women from BME communities—for example, Dame Kelly Holmes, who overcame a challenging upbringing, rose through the ranks in the Army and won two Olympic gold medals, and the Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin, who came to England from Jamaica as a child. As noble Lords know, she is now chaplain to the Queen and performs that role brilliantly in the House of Commons.​

Although 20% of small and medium-sized companies are run by women, there is still so much untapped business talent among women, especially BME women. As we all know, most corporate boards are still mainly male and white. So my next question for the Minister is: what plans do the Government have to encourage an increase in women company directors?

There are other ongoing issues, such as the pay gap between women’s and men’s earnings, and the cost of childcare. When I was a district councillor in the Midlands in the 1980s, I remember a lady complaining to me that her take-home pay was so low that it would not even take her home. I am not sure that much has changed for women in low-paid jobs. According to the Women in Work Index report by PricewaterhouseCoopers last year, the closure of the gender pay gap would produce a £90 billion boost to the UK economy. In the developing world it is widely recognised that empowering women is an important step to driving economic growth. What plans do the Government have to help reduce the gender pay gap?

Between 2015 and 2016, according to the same report, the UK fell from 14th to 15th place in a ranking of 33 OECD countries, based on five key indicators of female economic empowerment. As the fifth-richest economy in the world, surely we can do better than that, so my next question for the Minister is: what plans do the Government have to address this backward step? We are going backwards.

There is still a need for more women in science, technology, engineering and as university vice-chancellors. I say this as a former chancellor of Bournemouth University, which had at the time one of the few female vice-chancellors. Women-led businesses contribute about £82 billion of gross value to the British economy. I acknowledge that the Government try to support first-time business owners. There is the broadband challenge fund, for example, but its budget is modest and it is linked to only 13 localities. What will the Government do to expand that project?

I suggest that one of the most inspirational women role models in the world is our sovereign, the Queen. For the last 67 years we have had a female Head of State. Let us not forget that. She has continued to conduct herself with dignity and poise throughout, during smooth and rough times.

Lastly, we must not forget that women making a contribution to an economy is not new. There were prominent women business leaders in the Bible, over 2,000 years ago. For example, in the Book of ActsLydia ran a fashion company, Priscilla owned an up-market residence franchise and Queen Candace governed her nation’s economy. There was also Deborah, in the Book of Judges, who was the nation’s chief lawyer. There are many more examples. Those biblical heroines and women of today show that women are a real voice, not just an echo.