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Senior Executive Roles

Volume 613: debated on Thursday 21 July 2016

7. What steps the Government have taken to increase numbers of women in senior executive roles. (905990)

This area is a real success story—we have more women on boards than ever before—but we know that we have got more to do. I fully endorse the business-led target of 33% of women on FTSE 350 boards by 2020. To achieve that, we have established the new independent Hampton Alexander review, which will have a particular focus on improving gender representation in the all-important executive layer of FTSE companies.

We now have the statutory male on the Government Front Bench. If the Minister for Schools had not turned up, I might have been tempted to invite the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) to make an appearance on the Front Bench, but I suspect that would have been a divisible proposition.

Yes, I do. We will need to take some steps, but so far the proposal of working voluntarily with business has seen some real progress, including a doubling of women on boards in the FTSE 350, from 9.5% in 2010, when the coalition Government came to office, to 22% now. The number of all male boards has also dropped from 152 in 2011 to 15 today. We have more to do, but I fully expect and hope that we can meet that ambitious, achievable target by 2020.

May I congratulate those on the Front Bench on the fantastic representation of women there? As my right hon. Friend the Minister knows, Plymouth University is taking the lead, in that half its board of governors are women. What is her Department doing to ensure more women are in senior leadership roles in universities?

I should start by congratulating Plymouth University on making fantastic progress. I have been delighted to see that the latest “WomenCount” report on higher education—which the Government supported—showed that a third of governing bodies are now gender balanced. It is good that we now have a new code of governance in force, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England has also set an aspirational target for 40% of women on governing bodies. An Athena SWAN charter mark has also been embraced as a sector standard, which I strongly support.

I, too, wish to add my congratulations to the Secretary of State, who has long been a role model for many women following behind her. I know that when she came into Parliament in 2005 it looked a very different place. What is her Department doing to ensure that women across the UK—not just in London—have opportunities to access senior executive roles, and can she assure me that those women will be encouraged into sectors other than those traditionally occupied by women?

My hon. Friend’s question has two parts that I should answer. First, we have just expanded the Women’s Business Council to 20 members. That includes organisations based in Scotland and Wales, so we are expanding and making sure that its geographical focus is UK-wide. Secondly, we are also changing the council so that it has greater representation of industries such as engineering, defence systems and construction. A good example would be Halfords Group, which is based in the west midlands near her constituency, whose board is 50% women and whose chief executive is female. We must champion best practice.

Will the Government lead by example by increasing the number of women in senior management roles in their Departments, agencies and other organisations in which they have influence, including the NHS?

We are certainly going to try to make sure we do lead by example. The fact that we have our second female Prime Minister is a very good, strong and historic start. She recognises that the public sector needs to make progress, as does the private sector.

The Minister rightly mentions some of the progress made on getting female representation in boardrooms, but it is still a fact, which I think was researched by The Guardian, that there are more men called John—and a fine name it is, Mr Speaker—who are bosses in FTSE 100 companies than there are women running those companies. What more can the Government do to ensure that women see it as their role to run FTSE 100 companies?

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the problem. Despite progress, the reality is that only 18 of the FTSE 350 companies have female CEOs. We need to ensure not only that women aim high, but that, for example when women have children and come back into the workplace, their careers are not hindered and they can go on and get to the very top.

Of 318 female executive committee members in business, from a total of 2,038 across both genders, just 122 held roles with financial responsibility. Has the Minister had any discussions with companies about the possibility of mentoring women in business to enable them to achieve very senior roles?

I really welcome that question, as somebody whose background is as a chartered accountant. Some accounting firms have done great work to pull through their best and brightest women. The point the hon. Gentleman makes is not just about the numbers, but seeing women in pivotal roles on boards. That is precisely the kind of next step we want companies to take.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to her post. She is there on merit and the Conservative party has shown that women can get to the very top on merit. Can she give me an assurance that merit will always be the deciding factor on whether people are promoted to a role, irrespective of people’s gender, race or sexual inclination? When recruiting people, we should be blind to those things.

I have great news for my hon. Friend: there are plenty of fantastic women out there who are ready, willing and able to get into the top jobs, so I assure him there will be no compromise on merit—indeed, dare I say, Mr Speaker, that we might see a raising of the performance levels?