Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

As we see, all these factors result in differences of view on whether women or men are facing, or could be facing, the highest levels of unemployment. On the one hand the TUC argues that unemployment rates show significant variation by gender, while on the other the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development suggests that women are not losing their jobs at a faster rate than men. There are also regional variations. For instance, since the start of the downturn, women's unemployment in the north-west has almost doubled the rate for male unemployment. In the south-east, 33,000 women were affected by the closure of Lehman Brothers, but in the Midlands women's unemployment remains relatively low. Given the complexity surrounding the figures, we have to look beyond the statistics at the reality. Women are more likely to be employed in occupations where workplaces are smaller, in retail, care and personal services, where redundancies are under the radar and not likely to be recorded. But that does not mean that they are not happening. For instance, when two women are doing a job-share and both are made redundant, that is counted as one job loss. As redundancy moneys are paid only when an employee has been with a firm for two years or longer, women who have taken career breaks to raise children, or to care for relatives, may find themselves disproportionately vulnerable to being made redundant. Here again, these redundancies may not be recorded.

Women are also particularly vulnerable to discrimination due to pregnancy or taking maternity leave. Working Families has reported that it has been inundated with calls from women who are having problems at work because they are pregnant, are on maternity leave, or are in the process of returning from maternity leave, and are having flexible working requests turned down. Government research published in a Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform report on pregnancy discrimination states that 11 per cent of all women questioned thought that they had been unfairly treated as a result of their pregnancy, and that 3 per cent of all mothers felt compelled to leave their employment because of their treatment. Women were subjected to excessive workloads and unpleasant comments, and were discouraged from attending ante-natal clinics. This occurred in spite of it being unlawful to select pregnant women or women on maternity leave for redundancy on the basis of their pregnancy or maternity, and in spite of there being strong protections and other special measures against redundancy, including the right to be offered any suitable available vacancy and to be given written reasons for dismissal. The Government have made it clear that any discrimination as a result of pregnancy or maternity is not acceptable. I hope they will illustrate

12 Mar 2009 : Column 1276

this by not shelving the commitment in the Queen’s Speech to enhance maternity leave provision and tougher equality legislation.

Flexible working can, and already is, providing an alternative to redundancy, and must be maintained as the economy recovers. However, it is unclear whether the level of flexible working will decline or increase; some employers see it as a useful way to reduce the wage bill, while others may see straitened economic circumstances as a reason to refuse requests for flexible hours. As well as the other improvements in maternity and paternity arrangements, since flexible working for parents was introduced, 47 per cent of new mothers work flexibly—an increase of 30 per cent since 2002—and almost triple the number of new fathers have taken advantage of the flexible working option. That must continue. Any employer who is hesitant about flexible working should be made aware that all the evidence shows that, far from compromising business, it brings impressive business results through lower staff turnover, lower absenteeism and increased productivity. It is therefore right that the Government are continuing with their programme of increasing the level of flexible working for parents with children up to 16 years old, thereby sending a clear message to employers. There is a danger, however, that as jobs become scarce women will be reluctant to ask for a change of hours, even though employers have an obligation to provide a business reason for refusal.

One silver lining is the real advancement in female enterprise in the past 20 years; 34 per cent of the newly self-employed are women, assisted by the promotion and the development of women’s enterprise as central to the Government’s economic strategy. We must not lose that momentum. We look to the Government’s continued support for and development of the Enterprise Strategy, established last year, as well as to the Aspire Fund working through Business Link to assist women who are thinking about setting up or growing their businesses. Encouragement also needs to be given to the banks to make sure that they do not discriminate against women in the provision of funding. If the banks are sensible, they will realise that women tend to be more risk-averse than men and are therefore more likely to provide steady but good growth.

Recent government announcements on enabling earlier access to Train to Gain and on new job subsidy measures are welcome, as are the commitments to create 100,000 new jobs and 35,000 new apprenticeships. It is crucial that women have equal access to the new training plans for those who have been out of work for six months, and there cannot be job segregation and age discrimination in apprenticeships. It is equally crucial that women are not forgotten in the Government’s package of measures to assist those who have become unemployed—whether by helping with mortgages, tax cuts and tax credits—because many women will not have had the ability to save and may face the risk of immediate poverty. The economy needs women’s skills, but all too often women are in jobs well below their capabilities, and there is now opportunity for women to be retrained into occupations that make full use of their abilities. Failing to invest in women’s development is bad economics. We must ensure that

12 Mar 2009 : Column 1277

economic stimulus packages promote fairness and help those at the bottom of the pile, who are mainly women.

In conclusion, equality and an absence of discrimination are the hallmarks of a modern, civilised society, but at a time of recession, women are less likely to challenge discrimination when it occurs. Therefore, pursuing the equalities agenda and the provisions of the forthcoming equality Bill are even more important, as is keeping the impact of the recession on families and women at the forefront of the political agenda. Women will be looking to the G20 summit, to understand the necessity of protecting women's rights, maternity rights and provisions which have made it possible for women to play a key role in the economy of countries around the world. If the gender aspect of the economic crisis is ignored, it could jeopardise those advancements, threaten women's move to economic independence and make families more vulnerable through the loss of household income.

Now is the opportunity to review the relative position between women's and men's employment, to develop women's skills and talents, to promote flexible working, to increase women's participation in decision-making, to promote women's rights and further to advance the removal of unfair and discriminatory practices.

It is a moment to redefine the agenda and to move towards a more just and equitable economic order. This is a defining moment—a moment that will test our commitment to the long-held principles of social justice and equality.

While there is no perfect answer to this complex situation, the answer, for women, does not lie in turning the clock back. We must make sure that that is not allowed to happen. I beg to move for Papers.

11.56 am

Baroness Hogg: My Lords, I warmly congratulate the noble Baroness on initiating this debate and on making such a powerful and wide-ranging contribution to start us off. I admit that momentarily I had a problem with the title: to discuss the “role” of women in this financial crisis seemed to me initially to imply that they were thought either to be the cause, which would be preposterous, or the cure, which would be presumptuous. I am not tempted to imagine that the credit crunch is simply the consequence of too much testosterone in the boardroom and the Cabinet Room. So we should not leap to what Management Today, somewhat tongue in cheek, dubbed the “Icelandic solution” of giving women the pooper-scoopers and asking them to sort out the mess.

That argument was based on a good deal of research, which was alluded to by the noble Baroness, purporting to demonstrate that women are more risk averse than men. An aversion to risk is highly regarded now, in theory—although in practice we are having to take huge risks with economic policy to correct the mistakes of those who believed that they had abolished boom and bust.

I think we women should beware of seeing this research as flattering and of swallowing it wholesale because it often comes with the implication that women

12 Mar 2009 : Column 1278

are less entrepreneurial. I am glad to say that, if that were ever true, we have powerful evidence that things have been changing. In the context of this debate, I, like the noble Baroness, am more concerned to focus not on cause or cure but on consequences.

If noble Lords will forgive me—the noble Baroness rightly set a global context—I will concentrate on the UK. Like her, I think that the key issue here is whether a severe recession will reverse progress. We should not make too much of gender—men are also, as she acknowledged, suffering severe damage to their careers. In the UK at the moment, their unemployment rate is higher than that for women. However, the statistics are not entirely reliable because women are more likely than men to disappear into the statistical wilderness of so-called economic inactivity.

There is evidence that the rising generation of career women is categorically different from its predecessors in terms of management ambition and entrepreneurship. It would be a tragedy if this ambition were lost. There is now also a wealth of female talent in the mezzanine layer of corporate management. I hope that it will increasingly find its way on to company boards. I am proud to be part of more than one programme that is designed to encourage that. One piece of gender evidence that resonates strongly with me is that boards function best when they combine skills and aptitudes, and a gender mix contributes to that. Here I should declare an interest: I have direct experience of this at 3i, where we were unusual among quoted companies in having three women out of a total of nine board members—and no tokenism about it.

I fear that the recession puts these advances at risk. I spend a certain amount of time talking to senior women in financial services and they all give the same message of concern. Morale is low, given the constant battering from the press and the Government. Politicians of all kinds should be careful when criticising certain senior bankers, not to make the hundreds of thousands of people who work for them feel like pariahs, too. It is not surprising if those carrying the most strain in terms of combining motherhood and career are opting out, particularly as organisations feeling the strain are often less able to be flexible in work arrangements. If many able women disappear from financial services, a huge talent pool will be lost.

We also need to ensure that new women entrepreneurs are not lost. There is much talk of setting up a new institution to support entrepreneurship, rather as the forerunner to 3i, the ICFC, was set up in the 1940s. If I may share a word of experience as chairman of 3i, the key ingredient for such an initiative is not money but skilled and experienced equity investors. If the aim is simply to make funds available, the banks will perform the function in the form of loans. What entrepreneurs want from equity investors is experience, networks and access to markets. This is the function that 3i carries out in the biggest part of its business, which is the supply of growth capital. Unlike much of private equity, these are not leveraged investments; they involve the taking of sizeable minority stakes in order to help businesses through important stages of development—for example, when they wish to step up to the challenge of accessing global markets. This is distinct from start-up

12 Mar 2009 : Column 1279

investment, which is best left to serial sector-specific, early-stage investors. However, it is crucial to the growth of the new big businesses and employers: what the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, yesterday evening rightly called the “world-beaters of the future”. Therefore, I believe that 3i can play a vital role in economic recovery, and I hope and believe that it will assist in the current critical task of nurturing entrepreneurs of both sexes.

12.01 pm

Lord McNally: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hogg, who in her life and career has been a trailblazer and an inspiration to women. I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould. As I have said before, when in my youth I worked at the Labour Party headquarters, a request from the noble Baroness had the strength of a royal command, so I am very pleased to respond to her invitation to take part in today’s debate.

I have previously declared my interest in the topic in that I have a 13 year-old daughter. I reflect that her life chances at the beginning of the 21st century are in strong contrast to those of my mother, who had to leave school at 13 when her own mother died in childbirth at the age of 35. So we have made progress. We see it in more women in both Houses of Parliament, in senior jobs, and in business and the professions, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hogg, has just reminded us. Society has changed, and changed for the better.

Yet the facts also show that within three years of leaving university with similar qualifications, a pay gap appears between male and female graduates. As the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, reminded us, employers still see potential motherhood as a deterrent to employing or promoting women. In our newspapers, we see far too many cases of rampant sexism still making the headlines in reputable city offices and law firms. So let us celebrate the progress made but be aware of the mountains yet to climb. As the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, emphasised, we are about to test the durability of that progress at home and abroad.

Recent opinion polls show women to be more pessimistic about their personal economic prospects. That is with good reason, for women are more likely to be in part-time and unskilled jobs and in the sectors hit hardest by the recession. For women seeking jobs, there is a real need for specific and targeted assistance in the form of both guidance and training and retraining opportunities. As the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, emphasised, women should be encouraged, so if the Government are to take initiatives in green technologies, the training for jobs in those technologies should be open to women on an equal basis.

There has to be a co-ordinated approach. How can we create pathways back into work following a child break? How can we best enable mature women to get back into the labour market after a long break? Further, how can we encourage more women, particularly those from non-white backgrounds, to put themselves forward for top positions in our society—for example, as MPs, barristers, executive directors and other top-echelon positions in business? We face not only those challenges,

12 Mar 2009 : Column 1280

but that of encouraging girls at school to undertake subjects more traditionally studied by boys, which are often the gateway to such jobs.

Another problem we shall have to face in this recession is the impact on debt. Figures show that women are less likely to get into debt but, when they do, they are more vulnerable to loan sharks and other high-interest solutions. The other day, my colleague in another place, Chris Huhne, raised the issue of doorstep callers who offer loans often at the highest interest rates. There is a need for specific and targeted advice. Over-indebtedness disproportionately affects women as lone parents, carers, low-paid workers and those with fluctuating work patterns. There is a need for closer supervision of doorstep loan providers and more oversight of loan offers made in newspapers and on television.

How can the Government act to tackle the gender pay gap, pensions gap and the inequalities caused by part-time working? What advice can we give to those affected by debt through the citizens advice bureaux and other institutions? How can we ensure that women are better informed about their rights and legal position in relationships? My noble friend Lord Lester is bringing forward a Private Bill on civil partnerships which will address that.

Turning to the third-world aspect, the report Because I am a Girl pointed out, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, said, that girls are more vulnerable, particularly in times of conflict, disaster and when families are poor. That report states that:

It is also true that girls are often married younger, work longer hours for less pay and are more likely to be poor. Against that background, they face a financial crisis in a developing world which faces dramatic cuts in economic growth and in investment, which will add to their problems.

We must maintain our aid programmes targeted at women. Literacy and numeracy programmes aimed at women impact on family health, family planning and on economic prospects. We have seen the impact of small-loan banking in Latin America and India on economic opportunities for women. Our multinationals operating in developing countries should be encouraged to include specific women’s programmes in their corporate responsibility reports. Both at home and abroad, we must not tolerate cultural and religious entrenchment of discrimination against women.

Earlier this week, I went to a breakfast organised by the LSE which looked at the situation in Afghanistan and the north-west frontier of Pakistan. For me, the most frightening and disappointing aspect of that report was the targeted abuse of women. We may wonder whether we should pull out of Afghanistan, but the thought of leaving women to a situation where schools are closed and the teaching of women is seen as a capital crime is frightening. The problem is not only in far-away places. The most dispiriting thing I saw at a recent demonstration in Luton was not the young men shouting, but the young women, fully veiled in burkas, watching. I do not believe that cultural or religious behaviour should be used to justify abuse and discrimination against women.

12 Mar 2009 : Column 1281

We must be much more frank about that debate with those who claim to speak for Islam. What we realise from this debate, as I said at the beginning, is that although much progress has been made, we must not stop fighting for more.

12.10 pm

Baroness Flather: My Lords, along with all other noble Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for setting up this debate. In fact, if she did not set up this debate at this time each year, we would be absolutely confused; we would not know what was happening. I thank her again for giving us an opportunity to speak on a subject that, for many of us, is very dear to the heart.

I am pleased that the noble Baroness said that we should not confine our remarks to the United Kingdom but look at the life situation of women across the world. I thought that today I would share with your Lordships statistics that paint a picture of the lives of women and children, mostly in developing countries. From that, your Lordships will see that it is more than likely that they will not notice that there is a global recession. Their lives are so appalling that they will not actually see the difference in their daily lives because of this recession. The recession means something when you have something to lose. If you have nothing to lose, what does it mean to be in a recession?

I always start with the population factor. In 1950, we were 2.6 billion people on this planet. We are now 6.8 billion people. In the next 40 years, we will have 2.6 billion more people on this planet, 1.3 billion of whom will be in Africa. We need to think about that and about what it means in terms of food, water and everything else. Europe is anticipating a 14 per cent fall in population at the same time, so we can see that the situation here is completely opposite.

One woman dies every minute from pregnancy-related issues. Globally, 41 per cent of pregnancies are unwanted. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health held some hearings on maternal morbidity, or illnesses related to pregnancy. It is difficult to quantify exactly, but almost 20 women suffer from pregnancy-related illnesses for every woman who dies.

“If you save mothers, you improve the chances of children”.

That is a quotation from Sarah Brown. It is self-evident but, unfortunately, it is not always followed. There is a direct correlation between high fertility and high child mortality, states the UN Economic Commission on Africa.

“The ability of women to control their own fertility is absolutely fundamental to women’s empowerment and equality”,

states the UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. Between 2002 and 2008, the Bush Administration withheld a total of $235 million from UNFPA and the Administration are still spending money in Africa on teaching abstinence to young people.

Six million children die every year from malnutrition before they are five years old, having suffered a life of hunger and misery, states the WHO. There are 250 million child labourers worldwide aged between five and 14, states the ILO. India has more malnourished people

12 Mar 2009 : Column 1282

than any other country in the world; according to the 2008 Global Hunger Index, 200 million people are hungry. In monetary terms, three-quarters of India’s 1.2 billion people live on 30p a day. According to UNICEF, 40 per cent of Africans go hungry every night, an African child dies every six seconds from disease and extreme poverty and 43 per cent of children in sub-Saharan Africa do not have safe, accessible drinking water. Two-thirds of the world’s population will face moderate to high water shortages by 2025.

Children account for half of all civilian casualties in wars in Africa, and at least 28 wars have been fought in sub-Saharan Africa since the 1970s. In November 2008, it was reported that 1,500 people were dying in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo every day, according to the International Rescue Committee. Between 1996 and 2006, as many as 10 million female foetuses were aborted in India, which is one in 25. I might add that it is the women who perpetuate these things.

I see that I am running out of time, so I will not read the whole list. Seventy per cent of those suffering from HIV are women; this is a UN figure. Between 20 and 50 per cent of women in every country suffer from domestic violence. This applies to our part of the world as well. More women die from domestic violence than from disease and accidents. Worldwide, 100 million to 140 million girls and women are living with the consequences of female genital mutilation, again perpetuated by women. Not all women are sisters.

I have run out of time, but I hope that this gives noble Lords some idea of the lives of women who are far from thinking about the global recession, who have never had anything and who will never have anything. We have the MDGs, to which 187 countries have signed up. Has anyone heard what any of those countries has done? Eighty-nine global companies have signed up to the MDGs. Has anyone heard what they have done? There was a big meeting in September in New York. The “woman” word was hardly used at all. Only Denmark and Liberia, which has a feisty woman president, kept saying that the MDGs cannot be met, and cannot even start being met, unless we focus on women. This is the situation. Thank you for listening.

12.18 pm

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, like everyone else, I thank my noble friend for initiating this debate. She has given us this opportunity regularly in the past, but we have never before had it in such challenging circumstances. How splendid to be doing this on the day when women are to be admitted to the Royal Hospital Chelsea for the first time. It has only taken 300 years.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page