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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Developing Femail Entrepreneurs in Britain

Sunday, October 2, 2005

At the Labour Party conference Meg made the following speech at a fringe meeting organised by the Smith Institute and the Association of Certified Chartered Accountants (ACCA) on Tuesday 27th September.


I’m pleased to be here today and speaking about an issue I feel is important - important to the country, important to employers, but perhaps most important of all to the thousands of women who don’t get to use their abilities to the full in the area of work.  I recently spoke at a lunch for Women in Business, and talking to the women I was struck by how many of them found it exciting being in the world of work when they were shaping it. The feeling of being in control, of shaping your own life - these feelings may not appear on a balance sheet but they have a huge impact on the individual and in the world at large.


Women comprise 52% of the UK population, and 46% of those active in the labour market. Anyone wanting to boost entrepreneurial activity would be plain silly to ignore us - but that’s what society has been doing for to long. If we had the same rate of female owned start-ups as in the USA, we would have 750,000 more businesses. Imagine the effect on the UK economy - increased productivity, growth in employment and prosperity.


At the moment, women-owned businesses contribute about £70 billion to Gross Value Added; about 25% of the UK total, mainly from the growing service sector. There are nearly a million women self-employed, and this number has gone up by around 10% over the last four years. However, only 26% of the total self-employed are women, and only 15% of all businesses are majority-owned by women.  This differential between men and women-owned businesses has hardly changed in a decade.


One reason women are not setting up their own firms is occupational segregation - where women are over-represented in certain types of low-paid jobs, and under-represented in other sectors, such as science or construction. Tackling occupational segregation is crucial in raising UK productivity and reducing the gender pay gap.  Sectors in which women are poorly represented; construction and plumbing for instance, currently have large skill shortages.


Some of you may know that in October 2004 we launched a cross government plan: ‘Equality, Opportunity and Choice: Tackling Occupational Segregation’, highlighting government action to encourage both women and men into non-traditional areas of work. The Trade and Industry Select Committee share our concern.  Earlier this year the Committee published its report ‘Jobs for the Girls: The effect of occupational segregation on the gender pay gap’.  The Government’s response includes details of what we’re doing to ensure that women are able to make informed choices about training and careers. 


We have already begun specific action to challenge under-representation in particular sectors.  We’re providing £4m for the UK Resource Centre for Women (UKRC) in Science, Engineering and Technology.  The Centre is working with employers and professional organisations to raise the profile of women through a range of initiatives. These include a resource centre website and helpline, providing a wealth of information and advice to girls and women considering science, engineering and technology careers.


The Centre is based in Bradford and I visited it earlier this month. I met women who had been supported by the Centre and learnt how they were able to use their knowledge and skills in science and technology in their work. There are not enough women who follow careers into science, engineering and technology - but more worrying, too many women who have these skills do not go on to use them.


At the centre I also met employers, some from the construction industry. Too few women go into construction and too often those that do face prejudice and discrimination. One employer told me that in his experience women in construction jobs were often more capable than men but were assumed to be less so. Winning the bid for the Olympics in 2012 will provide many job opportunities in construction and we must work to ensure that women have opportunities as the sector expands. Interestingly, construction and plumbing are two areas where large numbers of small companies operate, ideal you would think for women with the skills to set up in.


We do have important allies in the business world taking occupational segregation seriously. For example, cosmetics company L’Oreal have joined the UKRC in launching in July a programme to help female scientists returning to work after a career break. Three cash bursaries of £10,000, jointly funded by the partners, will be granted each year to women scientists.  


Similarly, ABB - a global electrical engineering company - actively supports programmes encouraging women to enter careers in science. Far sighted companies know that in an expanding economy with some growing skills shortages, they have to encourage and support women to ensure they will get a skilled, professional workforce.


The Government will continue to lead in tackling occupational segregation. By 2008, we aim to ensure that women make up 40 per cent of the representation on science, engineering and technology related boards and councils.


We also aim to reverse the serious under-representation of women in the information, technology, electronics and communications (ITEC) sector. The UK must at least match the best of our competitors.  As a first step, by 2006 we plan to increase the proportion of women in the UK ITEC workforce from the 2002 figure of 23%.


A final word on occupational segregation: why concentrate on women? Yes, girls are outperforming boys in education. However, a significant gap exists between the numbers of men and women who reach senior positions. Also, women’s employment opportunities continue to be constrained by subject choices made at school. There remain significant job areas which appear to be ‘no go’ areas for women.


There is evidence that policies introduced to improve the chances of women participating in the labour market are working. We’ve have tried to break down barriers that women face when trying to balance work with caring responsibilities - for example, by providing better access to childcare, and introducing flexible working laws. 


Just a word on the gender pay gap. The Prime Minister announced the creation of the Women and Work Commission in July last year to examine this persistent problem. The Women and Work Commission, chaired by Baroness Prosser, will report later this year with recommendations of how to tackle this. Plus the DTI is carrying out a Discrimination Law Review, which will examine the current anti-discrimination legislative framework, including the Equal Pay Act 1970.


For me, it’s not just the big picture, the individual stories from women who have turned their business ideas into reality remain. For all of us, women and men, having the opportunity, encouragement, and support to try and fulfil our potential, well it might sound trite in our cynical age - but its important.


I’d like to thank The Smith Institute and the Association of Certified Chartered Accountants for putting on this event. I don’t know about the Smith Institute, but I understand that the ACCA are well on the way to having a majority of women as members in the not to distant future.

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