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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Maximising Women’s Skills

Friday, November 11, 2005

In a debate on ‘Maximising Women’s Skills in the UK Economy’ in Westminster Hall on Thursday 10th November Meg, in her Ministerial role, started events with the following speech. The full debate, including Meg’s wind-up, can be seen at:



The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Meg Munn) : I am delighted to discuss the very important issue of maximising women's skills in the economy.

The Government have put productivity at the centre of the economic agenda, and the No. 1 Public Service Agreement target of the Department of Trade and Industry is to narrow the productivity gap between us and our key competitors.

Using the preferred measure of gross domestic product per hours worked, the productivity gap between us and each of our peers remains substantial. The gap between us and Germany is 12 per cent. It is also 14 per cent. between us and the United States, and 29 per cent. between us and France. Improving productivity will allow us to produce greater output, which will allow us to support higher wages and profits, and to have better public services and a higher standard of living.

Today is a good day on which to hold the debate, as the up-to-date pay gap statistics have just been released and show that the pay gap is now 13.2 per cent.?its lowest level for 30 years?as measured by the median, and 17.2 per cent. as measured by the mean. Hon. Members have discussed the question of measuring the pay gap by the median, but we are following the advice of the Office for National Statistics in excluding the highest earning people, as including them distorts the overall picture relating to most people. That is why we use the median.

The pay gap also shows, however, that we need to go further and faster to reach the stage at which gender does not determine how much someone receives an hour. Closing those gaps would raise levels of prosperity in the United Kingdom, and reducing skills shortages would be a key driver of that. Significant occupational segregation is one of the main reasons for the current pay gap. Women are over-represented in certain types of low-paid jobs, and under-represented in other sectors, such as science and information technology. If there was no segregation between men and women in certain occupations, GDP could increase by between £2 billion and £9 billion a year, assuming that workers from higher-skilled occupations were not displaced.

Greater equality of treatment could attract more women into the labour force, and could encourage some part-time workers to work full-time.
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): The Minister's second point was interesting; will she repeat it? The difference between the previous statistic and the current statistic is striking.

Meg Munn : Is the hon. Lady asking about GDP or the pay gap?

Mrs. Laing : GDP.

Meg Munn : I am very happy to repeat what I said, because I want to highlight these issues today. If there was no segregation of men and women in certain occupations, GDP could increase by between £2 billion and £9 billion, assuming that there was no displacement of workers. Obviously much of this information is worked out according to hypothesis, but it is very important for us to recognise the cost of not paying women better.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I recruited graduates into the ICT sector for 20 years before I entered this place in 1997. Early on, there was little difference between the proportion of graduates wanting to work in IT who were female and the proportion who were male. Over the years, that picture has become skewed in favour of men, and the proportion of men has remained high since then. Will the Minister say what steps the Government should be taking to encourage more young females not to abandon areas of education that are likely to lead them into the hugely important area of ICT later in their lives?

Meg Munn : I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. That is certainly an important issue, and I shall discuss it in a little more detail when I talk about information technology. Although I may not cover all my hon. Friend's points in my opening speech, I can tell him that the Government have considered the subject. I recently visited the Intellect board, which involves leading people in the IT world. What is not in my speech is in the many documents on the Table, and I can return to relevant matters in my closing remarks if I do not satisfy my hon. Friend's curiosity before then.

In relation to segregation, greater equality of treatment could attract more women to the labour force, and encourage some part-time workers to work full-time. That is based on research showing that 25 per cent. of women who work part-time would be prepared to work full-time if better pay and more flexible working conditions were on offer. There would be additional GDP benefits of between £14 billion and £20 billion and those figures added together could amount to 3 per cent. of GDP. That is a significant figure and it is important to understand the work situation that means that we miss out on such a benefit to the economy.

Girls do well in education today and more young women than young men are likely to gain degrees. However, that level of attainment is not carried through into work. Instead, many women continue to work in lower-skilled, lower-paid jobs, and the economy continues to operate below its productivity potential. Encouraging women into higher-skilled, higher-paid jobs would help us to reduce the current skill shortages and ensure that women had the opportunity to reach their potential.
Research by the university of Manchester found that women returning to work from caring or maternity leave experience, on average, a 16 per cent. drop in wages, owing to being over-qualified for the part-time job that they then take. We commissioned research with the London School of Economics that showed that in the context of qualifications higher skills raise productivity and lead to higher wages for individuals. Also, organisations with a greater proportion of female and part-time workers had lower productivity and wages, partly because part-time workers were being paid less than their contribution merited.

Further recent research by the Equal Opportunities Commission and Sheffield Hallam university found that more than 50 per cent. of women in part-time work are working below their skill level. That is a shocking statistic. Many of their managers are unaware that that is so. A further 30 per cent. of women in part-time work felt that, given training, they could increase their skill levels.

Skill shortages are higher in sectors with gender dominance. There is currently an annual estimated shortfall of 29,000 plumbers, with an extra 10,000 needed for engineering apprenticeships. Flexibility at all levels of the career ladder is important if women are to retain skills, particularly since those at the higher end of the scale are the greatest contributors to the productivity gains for companies and the economy. The Work and Families Bill, which the Government published on 19 October 2005, will extend the scope of flexible working law to carers of adults.

The women and work commission will issue its report on the gender pay gap in January and, from my regular discussions with Baroness Prosser, the chair of the commission, I know that it is considering practical ways to make a difference to women's working lives. The commission's key task is to consider closing the pay gap within a generation, but I hope that we shall see significant progress sooner.

Information technology is at the heart of the UK economy and is a key source of business competitiveness. It currently accounts for almost 5 per cent. of the UK economy and is set to increase. Employment in the IT industry, too, is set to grow at five to eight times the UK average in the next decade. What my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) was saying earlier is, indeed, correct.

David Taylor: Of course, it goes wider than employment in the narrowly defined IT industry of software development and allied areas. So many of our economy's highly paid, highly skilled and higher-status jobs depend heavily on IT skills, experience and qualifications, even though they may not be IT jobs in the narrowly defined sense.

Does the Minister recognise that the main area for advancement lies there? I hope that she will respond with something positive, even though I am the only male MP of the eight MPs present. I am perhaps an honorary member of the group because I have a large family of daughters.
Meg Munn : I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and for the extremely important points that he makes. I was about to say that the IT sector is at a disadvantage when only 20 per cent. of its work force are women, compared with just under half of the UK's national work force.

My hon. Friend is right to say that it is not only in the IT industry that we need to have IT skills. There are very few occupations now where some IT skills are not an important part of the job.

It is predicted that women will make up the majority of the working population by 2018, so to get more women into the IT sector is "a must" for the work force, business profitability and growth, and the economy.

BlackBerry and the women's networking group Aurora hosted the Women and Technology awards in October. I was pleased to be invited to present one of the prizes and to speak about the event's importance. Award ceremonies such as those?organised by industry?recognise and celebrate women's achievements. They raise awareness that women have talents to offer. The overall winner at the women and technology awards was Jackie Edwards from De Montfort university. She has helped women who have been out of the workplace for several years to learn IT by talking to them and showing them how things work. She has done a great deal to build their confidence not only to re-enter the workplace but to re-enter the information technology sector using the skills that they have learned. I was delighted that BlackBerry recognised her contribution to making a real difference at grass-roots level.

I shall move on now to talk about women with science, engineering and technology qualifications. We need more women with those skills. It is a concern that 70 per cent. who have science, engineering and technology qualifications are not working in sectors that use those skills.

Last year the Government set up the UK resource centre for women in science, engineering and technology. I visited it in early September?it is just up the road from me, in Bradford?to see the work that is done there. I met women there whom the centre had supported. They had learned how to use their knowledge of and skills in science and technology in their work. Through talking to women who were looking to return from a career break, it was clear that the work that they were doing at the centre was enabling them to return to the areas in which they were qualified. It had previously been difficult for those women to do that.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): My hon. Friend will know that I have also visited the women's resource centre in Bradford. I take the opportunity to congratulate the Government on establishing the resource centre, which had been desperately needed for years.

The centre has within its grasp a collection of outstanding women who have been working in the field of science, engineering and technology for decades but who have done so poles apart. That facility brings those women together. Can the Minister reassure me that the Government will continue to support the centre to deliver its objectives, which are commendable and desperately needed?
Meg Munn : The Government have invested in that area because we must act to prevent a loss of skills to our economy in an area that is important to future growth. The UK resource centre is developing, not just in science, engineering and technology, but more widely in its links to universities and the construction industry. The centre performs a vital role in attempting to reverse the current situation.

At the centre, I met employers from the region, some of whom were from the construction industry. We know that too few women go into construction and, too often, those that do face prejudice and discrimination. As I am from Yorkshire, I can say that one employer, in true, blunt Yorkshire style, told me that, in his experience, women in construction jobs were often more capable than men, but were often assumed to be less so. He had had conversations with others in the construction industry who had shared that experience. As a result of that experience, they were beginning to change employers' minds.

Fortunately, we also have significant allies in the business world who take occupational segregation seriously. In July, cosmetics firm L'Or?al and the UK resource centre announced a programme to address some of the issues faced by female scientists when returning to work after a career break.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : It would be pertinent at this moment to make my hon. Friend aware of a conversation that I had with the chief executive of one of the leading house builders in this country. He told me that he did not think that the construction industry was a place for women because he would never advocate that his wife worked in it. I consider that an incredible statement in today's society, but that was his position. That is why it was essential for the Government to introduce requirements for construction companies to recruit people from the workplace. I hope that we shall see stringent enforcement on that matter. While that chief executive might not wish to employ his wife in his own business, there are women around the country who would relish the opportunity of working in construction, and who need the assistance of the Government to do so.

Meg Munn : I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution on the experience of talking to people in the construction industry. As I said, my conversations were beneficial in highlighting that the experience of employing women was changing minds. We cannot do too much to share positive experiences and good practice. That is why the work of L'Or?al and the UK resource centre is important. Their programme provides three cash bursaries of £10,000 each, which are jointly funded by the partners, and granted to women scientists each year. They are putting money and investment into this area, as, indeed, are the Government. For those of you who are not familiar with the UK resource centre, I invite you to visit its website to see the range of its activities.

I am sure that hon. Members were delighted that London secured the 2012 Olympics. Hon. Members will wish to see the games act as a springboard for women in science, engineering and technology. It is an excellent time for women to get involved not only as athletes, but in senior roles and in all aspects of making the games
happen, not least in the construction industry, which will play a vital part in developing the facilities. It is striking that, while female entrepreneurship in the US stands at 89 per cent. of the level of male entrepreneurship, in this country that figure is only 46 per cent. If we had the same rate of female-owned start-ups as that of the US, we would have 750,000 more businesses. The case for doing all that we can to boost women's enterprise in the UK is, therefore, clear. It is not a matter only of equality of opportunity, but an economic imperative if we are to capitalise on the potential that women have to offer. The Small Business Service and Ministers are consistently working to raise the profile of women's enterprise, following a dedicated women's enterprise public relations campaign. That arises from the recommendations of the strategic framework for women's enterprise and the women's enterprise content of the innovation report.

In June, we successfully held the women's enterprise online summit, to which more than 5,000 people logged on. The internet does not tell us whether they were men or women, but all are welcome. The summit was designed to motivate more women to start their own businesses and to tap into an exciting community of networking, support, useful resources and targeted services. It was a worthwhile opportunity for women to obtain answers to such questions as, "How can I speak to like-minded women?" "Who can I speak to about my business idea?" "Who can help me to start and grow my business?" and "What resources are available to support me on that journey?" As many hon. Members will appreciate, being able to get such advice and information from someone who is already running their own business is invaluable, particularly when it is another woman who is acting as a positive role model.

The campaign is additional to the range of activities in the women's enterprise programme throughout 2005. I am sure that hon. Members are aware that next week is enterprise week. We have a dedicated day for women in enterprise, which is next Wednesday.

The next few months will see the roll-out of phase two of the case for women's enterprise. That initiative will be principally aimed at mainstream business support providers. They may have limited experience of providing targeted services for women and may not previously have considered segmenting their client needs using a gender perspective. The Government have a strong commitment to increasing the number of women starting and growing businesses and to ensuring that Government-funded business support services are accessible and appropriate to their needs. The Government are committed to maximising the skills of women in the economy and we shall continue to work to improve the chances of women in the labour market.

I could say a great deal more about the position of women in the economy and what the Government are doing, but I know that many hon. Members want to speak. I hope that I can provide the information that they want when I sum up the debate later. 

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