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Appreciating International Women’s Day

Monday, March 10, 2008

Diana Johnson MP invited Meg to give the keynote speech at a celebration for International Women’s Day in Hull.



I want to start by thanking Diana for inviting me; it’s good to be here.


It’s perhaps not surprising that as a Labour woman MP and former Minister for Women and Equality I appreciate International Women’s Day. For one thing it reminds me, and I hope others, to acknowledge and celebrate the achievements of women all over the world. It also reminds us of the struggles that women have been engaged in throughout history to achieve a better future.


At heart I think, it gives us a poke to think about society and what shape we want it to be for us, for the children who get to inherit what we leave behind. I know, looking back to how it was when my Mum was my age that we have moved forward. I also know we have to do more to ensure that no-one is held back by outdated ideas of ‘appropriate’ roles for girls or boys.



One area of both advancement, and hidebound ideas, is in representation. Women play a vital and important role in communities, but too often in ‘supportive’ roles. We need more women in the key decision-making positions, and to be visible doing them. For instance, increasing the numbers of women MPs and Councillors would help ensure we have policies that deliver for women.


Women currently make up nearly 20% of the House of Commons compared to 9% before 1997. I’m pleased to say that 27.4% of Labour MPs are women, but all parties are now taking action to increase women’s representation. I understand that currently in Hull 35% of the Council are women, so you’re doing slightly better than the Commons. But it’s still not good enough this year we mark 90 years since women could first be elected to parliament. There’s still only ever been 291 women MPs there are more than 500 male MPs who sit in the Commons now.


You may know the Government introduced the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidate) Act in 2002. This legislation allowed the Labour Party to use women only shortlists and thereby increase the proportion of women MPs in the 2005 General Election. For the first time ever there were more women than men elected 26 women and 14 men that’s 65% of the new intake of Labour MPs. Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour Party, announced this week that the legislation will be extended to allow these measures for more elections in the future.


There is better participation of women in decision making. For instance, in the Civil Service we are 30.4% of the Senior Civil Service, up from 18% in 1998. In the very top management posts 26.3% are held by women, up from 13% in 1998. Having key posts at all levels of management and decision making that reflect society is crucial. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office faces particular challenges with staff being placed all over the world sometimes in dangerous places. To improve our representation of women, particularly at the most senior levels, we’ve introduced the right to flexible working for everyone.


Parliament & policy

You will know that 200 years ago it was a Hull MP, William Wilberforce, who finally succeeded in abolishing the slave trade in Britain. I had the honour in summing up the 200 anniversary debate in the House of Commons last year, and in October I opened an exhibition at the Ferens Art Gallery of photographs as part of Wilberforce Women.


But we have a modern form of slavery - people trafficking, mainly for sexual exploitation. The government is working with its EU partners to tackling this, and will ratify the EU convention on Human Trafficking later this year. Our efforts are not helped though, when sexual services are advertised in national and local newspapers. The government has urged newspapers to stop this sort of advertising and I know Diana has taken a lead in Hull by writing to local newspapers asking them to do just that.


Improving women’s lives

Legislation can help change conditions for women, both to reflect today’s role of women in society and also to make society fairer. The Pensions Act introduced last year had at its heart equality for men and women. Currently around 30% of women reaching State Pension age are entitled to a full basic State Pension, compared with around 85%of men. Under the reform, which will come into force in 2010, around three quarters of women reaching State Pension Age will be entitled to a full Basic State Pension. By 2020, around 90% of both women and men reaching State Pension Age will be entitled to full Basic State Pension.  


We have seen significant improvement in childcare provision. Government provides substantial help, well over 2m a day, to working families. Up to 80% of childcare costs are met through the tax credit system, benefiting around 396,000 lower and middle income families. In addition, maternity entitlement was increased from 26 weeks to 39 weeks in April last year, benefiting around 400,000 mothers per year.


Women at work are clear that being able to take advantage of working flexibly is important to them. In April 2003, we introduced the right to request flexible working to parents of children under 6 years, 18 for children with disabilities. We are currently examining how to increase this age to help more families.


Gender Pay-Gap

One of the most crucial areas of concern for women, and one of the most difficult to solve, is the gender pay-gap. This gender pay gap isn’t just bad news for women, it distorts society. For women it means, of course, that their abilities and skills are not being utilised. But it also affects men. If men are ‘obliged’ to be the main breadwinner, the one with a career, it stereotypes them in a role that many are actually not comfortable with.


The Government in 2004 established the Women and Work Commission to carry out an independent review to examine the causes of the gender pay gap and occupational segregation. In response to the Commissions findings we launched two key projects:

         the Exemplar Employers Initiative, and

         the Quality Part-time Work initiative.


The Exemplar Employers initiative brought together more than 100 employers who are running projects to tackle inequality in the work place. The Quality Part-Time Work initiative aims to address the current problem of over 50% of women in part time work who are working below their skill level. It is designed to support projects across the UK that increase the number of senior and quality jobs that are available part-time.


The introduction of the National Minimum Wage plays a part in narrowing the gender pay gap, as women are more likely to work in lower paid and often part-time jobs. The Prime Minister announced this week that this will rise to 5.73 in October this year. 


The gender pay-gap is decreasing, but not fast enough. There is more work to do in getting women’s contribution at work recognised for what it is.


Working in the Public Sector

In April last year we introduced the Gender Duty for the public sector. This places all public authorities under a general obligation to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination and harassment and promote equality of opportunity between men and women in their public functions. Under this Duty, public authorities are legally required to draw up and publish a gender equality scheme identifying gender equality objectives and showing the steps that they will take to implement them. They are also required to consider whether one of their objectives should address the causes of any gender pay gap.


It is important to note that when drawing up the gender equality schemes or carrying out impact assessment, public authorities are also required to consult employees and other stakeholders, including unions, consumers, and voluntary and community sectors. In addition, they are required to gather relevant data and information especially on the extent to which they promote equality of opportunity between their male and female staff, and how their functions take account of their individual needs.



When celebrating International Women’s Day we have to look back to how far women have come, take a realistic view of where we are and determine the priorities for changing the situation for the future. Not always an easy thing to do, sometimes uncomfortable. 


But positive things are happening and the world in changing. Women are increasingly taking on roles that only a generation ago would have seemed improbable. Continuing that momentum is vital for us all.


Thank you for listening, I’d be glad to take questions and comments.

Associated Photograph :

Meg and Diana Johnson with Jean Oxley  a youngster at 98.

Meg and Diana Johnson with Jean Oxley a youngster at 98.

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