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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Remembering the pioneers and continuing the changes

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A group of staff at the UK Border Agency in Sheffield organised a day of events to celebrate International Women’s Day, to which Meg was invited to contribute her speech is below.

 

I’d like to thank those involved in organising today’s event. I think it’s terrific that they have done so.

 

Having International Women’s Day should remind us of the women pioneers who fought, against the odds, for a better future for themselves and generations following. It should also remind us of those who today are still struggling for basic rights which we in this country take for granted.

 

But the day should also be an opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements, achievements from all around our world. Any view of history teaches us that women have advanced in society, we know that opportunities that were available to us whilst growing up were just not there for our mothers, and that today’s girls are themselves faced with choices that were not there for us. Of course having more choice brings its own problems, but that’s another story. 

 

The fundamental job for us is to ensure today’s children grow up in a more equal society, one where no-one is held back by outdated ideas of ‘appropriate’ roles for girls or boys. We have to carry forward the work of those women pioneers, doing what we can to help secure a better future for all.

 

Some positive changes

The key decision-making positions in society surely need more women in them. In the political world we have to continue to increase the number of women elected as Members of Parliament and local councillors. This is crucial if we are to get policies and programmes that provide what women and men need to live the best lives they can.

 

Women currently make up nearly 20% of the House of Commons, this compared to 9% before 1997. Around 27% of Labour MPs are women, and now all the political parties are taking action to help increase the numbers of women putting themselves forward. At the councillor level we are doing a bit better in Sheffield - 31% are women. With women comprising around 52% of the population in this country we still have a way to go in both areas.

 

Some of this positive change has come about because of legislation that government introduced which allows political parties to use positive measures towards women’s increased participation, such as the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidate) Act introduced in 2002.

 

Such legislation is having an impact. It was used by the Labour Party in the last General Election to increase the proportion of women of the newly elected MPs. 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.

 

In the civil service around 30.4% of the Senior Civil Service are women, up from 18% in 1998. 26.3% of the very top management posts are held by women, up from 13% in 1998. So improvement there.

 

Improving women’s lives

But it’s not all about getting more women into responsible leadership roles. It’s also about improving women’s lives in general.

 

The Pensions Act 2007 had at its heart equality for men and women. Currently only around 30% of women reaching State Pension age are entitled to a full basic State Pension, compared with around 85% of men. When the reforms kick-in during 2010, around three quarters of women reaching State Pension Age will become entitled to a full Basic State Pension. In 2020, around 90% of both women and men will be entitled to full Basic State Pension.

 

Childcare is an important issue for many women. There has been significant improvement, with substantial help totalling well over 2m a day going to working families with up to 80% of their childcare costs met through the tax credit system. The childcare element of Working Tax Credit is benefiting 396,000 lower and middle income families. This is well over double the number that benefited from Childcare Tax Credit at its peak, and more than 8 times the number that benefited from the childcare disregard in Family Credit at its peak in 1999.

 

Flexible working is an area that women in particular say they want, and has been a key part of workplace reforms. In April 2003, the government introduced the right to request flexible working to parents of children under 6 years, the age being 18 for children with disabilities. From April this year it will be extended to parents of children up to the age of 16.

 

The government is committed to extending the period of payment of Statutory Maternity Pay, Maternity Allowance and Statutory Adoption Pay to 52 weeks. As a first step, maternity entitlement was increased from 26 weeks to 39 weeks in 2007. This benefits around 400,000 mothers per year.

 

Problem areas

A long-standing problem area at work is the gender pay-gap. This isn’t just bad news for women, if women’s abilities and skills are not being fully utilised society as a whole suffers. We have as much talent, as much intelligence, as much ‘nous’ as men if these are ignored or under-used then business, and the wider economy, suffer.

 

We have to reduce this gap between men’s and women’s earnings, and ensure that women’s talents are properly used and rewarded. At a time of economic troubles we have to re-double our efforts to get women the training, the skills and the mentoring that will help them succeed. The gender pay-gap is decreasing, but not fast enough.

 

Women working in the public sector in leadership roles face many of the same challenges as their counterparts in the private sector in terms of breaking through the glass ceiling. Limited career opportunities is one issue, constraints of traditional gender roles is another. Many women still struggle with balancing work and family responsibilities, and this can get harder as the demands of managerial jobs grow.

 

In April 2007 the government introduced the Gender Duty. 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 the 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 (which can include equal pay issues). They must consult employees and other stakeholders, including unions, consumers, voluntary and community sectors. In addition, they have 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.

 

Concerned with the economic situation

So some good things have been happening, helping many women, and men, with money, time and opportunities. But at the present time many of these women and men are concerned with the worldwide economic situation and what it means for them. The Government Equalities Office commissioned research to find out the attitudes of women and men during this difficult time. It suggested that women are generally more concerned about the effects of the downturn on themselves and their families.

 

Around 40% of women are more worried about unemployment, of themselves or members of their family, compared to 33% of men. 37% of women are concerned about their ability to pay the bills compared to 27% of men.

 

In response, last week the government launched ‘Real Help for Women’ - a booklet with practical advice including information about employment rights, where to go for help if you lose your job, children and skills and training. You may be aware that Child Benefit was increased to 20 a week in January, brought forward from April.

 

Continue the momentum

When looking back its clear there have been important moves forward for women. Gender equality has become something that all political parties will talk about, say they support, and some of them actually do. Women are increasingly playing roles in society that only a generation ago would have been improbable.

 

However, it is important that we continue the momentum and ensure that the future is brighter for the generation to come.  

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