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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Measuring the Progress Made

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

At a reception given by the Finnish Ambassador to celebrate the centenary of Finnish women gaining the vote, the Finnish Minister for Foreign Trade and Development, Paula Lehtom?ki, and Meg Munn gave speeches. Meg’s comments follow. For further details visit: http://www.finemb.org.uk/en/ 

 

Thank you for inviting me to take part in marking this significant occasion. As Finland prepares for its role next month at the helm of Europe, it is fitting that we mark your 100 years of universal suffrage.

 

Finland was the first country in Europe to grant women the vote, showing the way for the rest of the continent. The Act of 1906 meant that for the first time all Finns could vote irrespective of social status or gender, and the following Spring 19 women were returned as Members of Parliament. It was an important step - women able to enter the political arena, make decisions about their lives and their families, communities and the nation.

 

The idea of gender equality has long been central in the whole area of the Finnish welfare state model. The debate we are currently having here about work life balance has been part of the Finnish agenda for more than two decades.

 

Work-Life Balance

But there has been change on this issue going on in this country. For instance, there has been a substantial increase in the availability of flexible working arrangements in British workplaces since 1998. Figures show that 5.4 million employees (2.2 million men, 3.2 million women) have some form of flexible working arrangement. It’s increasingly important to families to have choices about how they can balance work and family caring responsibilities.

 

As well as the political or moral case for extending these working arrangements to families, I know there is a very strong business case for doing so. Before the recent Government re-shuffle I worked in the Department for Trade and Industry, I know that with our strong economy many of our business leaders face skills shortages. Flexible working practices helps business recruit and retain their workforce, improves morale and production.

 

Many women are also now finding that running their own business provides them with an opportunity not only to fulfill their potential and make their ideas a reality but they are also able to combine work more easily with their family commitments. More women are taking up these opportunities but we still lag behind the United States. If women started up businesses at the same rate as they do there then we would have half a million more businesses.

Government is committed to continuing to improve opportunities in the workplace. We have introduced a number of measures to help individuals balance work and family responsibilities - through greater provision of childcare, increased maternity and paternity leave. The Work and Families Act, which received Royal Assent last week, will benefit mothers and fathers further.

Welfare Reform

I think we all want to see a society that is inclusive, that helps and supports all our people. We want a society where women and men are able to fulfill their potential, make the most of their lives.

 

This means central and local government has to examine how it is organized, what it delivers, in order to meet the needs of today. This is important if we are to remain competitive in a global economy, to be able to ensure that everyone shares the prosperity this can bring.

 

Here in the UK we have made much progress. For instance, thanks to the policies that we have introduced to support women in the workplace, more women than ever are now going out to work. We also know that if we can remove the remaining barriers to women’s working in occupations which are traditionally done by men; this could be worth between £15 and £23 billion, or 1.3 - 2.0 % of GDP.

 

Women and Work Commission

The Prime Minister set up a Women and Work Commission to examine this whole area and make recommendations of the way forward. The Commission presented its final report, Shaping a Fairer Future, giving its recommendations in February.

The report proposed a wealth of practical ideas - 40 recommendations on how to close the gender pay and opportunities gap. The Commission described a complex problem, which requires progress on a number of fronts. 

 

This is the first time a Commission:

  • dealt with the many issues that make up the causes of the gender pay gap,
  • brought together all the key players, including small and big business, the public sector, trade unions and educationalists, and
  • undertook such a detailed examination of the evidence, gathered first-hand from academics, experts, employers and unions, and having an extensive visits programme to meet women across the UK.

Their recommendations fall into four main themes and address the barriers to:

  • informed choice for girls at school - girls are still making stereotypical subject choices which lead them into less well-paid jobs and careers,
  • combining work and family life - there is a lack of quality part-time work and women find it difficult to find a job which matches their skills when returning after a career break,
  • lifelong learning and training - women’s jobs are under-valued, and they have difficulty accessing training and upward career paths in some sectors, and
  • improving workplace practice - unequal pay arises through workplace practices, for example how pay systems operate.  

In particular, the Women and Work Commission outlined a wide range of solutions to ensure flexible and part-time work become embedded into working culture. We need to combine allowing more women to work when they choose to, with measures to improve the quality of that work; the chances women have to progress and get on and the rewards they receive.

 

Government have welcomed the report, and is committed to take action in all the areas highlighted.

 

Conclusion

As we know progress in achieving a more equal society, in moving forward, can at times feel very slow. It’s sometimes tempting to think nothing really changes. Only when we look back to where we have come from, can we really measure the progress made. I pay tribute to Finland, and acknowledge the importance of the Act 100 years ago that gave women the right to vote.

 


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