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Employment: Graduate Women

Volume 703: debated on Tuesday 8 July 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they are taking to promote the recruitment and retention of highly qualified graduate women in the jobs for which they are qualified.

My Lords, by not fully utilising the skills and talents of the available workforce, the economy loses out, as it is operating below its productive potential. That is why the recruitment and retention of women is so important. The Government are tackling the issue of retention of women employees in a number of ways—for example, through improving maternity rights, providing more access to childcare and extending the right to request flexible working.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is she aware that, since 1998, more women have graduated than men and, indeed, more women than men have got firsts? Is she also aware that in 2007, for the first time, more women than men graduated in science subjects? Is she further aware that only 25 per cent of those women continued in careers in science and technology? What are the Government doing to ensure that, given the shortage of skills in this sector, these women are being used to make the most of their capabilities?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is completely correct. Overall, women make up a higher proportion of students across science, engineering and technology, but they are still predominantly choosing areas of study that take them into professions relating to health and welfare rather than engineering and technology. The Government have funded a £7.5 million scheme—the Resource Centre for Women in SET—which was launched in September 2004 and works with British business to help to maximise the opportunities for professional women in science, engineering and technology and to try to close the skills gap. For example, £1.5 million is specifically aimed at women who want to return to careers in science, engineering and technology and £325,000 has specifically been allocated to a scheme to increase the number of female graduates taking up SET courses. There is definitely more to be done.

My Lords, I know that my noble friend the Minister shares with me concern about the waste of female talent in this country. The absence of women in leadership positions in the public sector is of concern, as it is in the private sector, where only 10 per cent of women hold board positions. Are the Government giving any consideration to measures introduced in Norway to require companies to have 40 per cent of women directors on their boards?

My Lords, my noble friend will know that we are not in favour of quotas and, while we have considered the work that has been undertaken in Norway to encourage women into top jobs, that is not a route down which we intend to go.

My Lords, as the Minister may know, only 600 women a year go into apprenticeships in the construction, engineering and ICT industries, compared to almost 24,000 men. What are the Government going to do to make good that gross imbalance?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is completely right. It is a matter of great regret that we do not have more young women going into plumbing and engineering, for example. The Government are supporting a number of organisations, including Women into Science and Engineering and Women and Manual Trades. With CITB-ConstructionSkills, we are trying to provide through our work with schools the incentive for girls to consider those careers as ones that they might enter.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, particularly in the health and social care professions, it would be beneficial to have an additional register of non-practising people so that women, during phases when they were not in employment, would still be kept on a register to show that they were professionally qualified and able to return to work?

My Lords, the noble Baroness knows that I have a great deal of sympathy with her campaign on that issue, so I can only say that, yes, that is a very useful suggestion.

My Lords, it is not just Norway; Spain, too, has enacted legislation to have 40 per cent of women directors on major company boards. At the moment the figure here is only 11.5 per cent and those women are paid 27 per cent less than their male counterparts. When will the Government grasp this nettle? At this rate, the Church of England will have 40 per cent of women bishops before the boards of our companies get there.

My Lords, that is a very optimistic view of the recent decision that was taken and how it might roll out, if I might be so bold as to say that. This is not just the Government’s responsibility. The fact of the pay differential is that women directors earn 22 per cent less than male directors, but that is also the responsibility of the companies with the boards that employ those executives. The director-general of the IoD, Miles Templeman, said that,

“unless we can achieve equality of opportunity in the near future, we will inevitably face further regulation in this area. The only way to rebut this is for business to act quickly. It is wholly unacceptable in this day and age that it appears that women in comparable positions do not receive the same rewards as their male counterparts”.

I also remind the House that we are discussing the Equality Act.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of our Science and Technology Committee’s report on science teaching in schools? I speak as patron of Women into Science and Engineering. One of the big problems is that most careers advisers are humanities based and are therefore not giving young girls particularly good advice on the excitement and rewarding nature of careers in science and engineering. That is an important thing that needs concentration.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is completely right. One of the most effective methods is when organisations such as WISE send their members into schools to talk to girls about the benefits and excitement of doing those jobs. We need a lot more of that.

My Lords, research shows that forward-looking employers find it easier to manage the right to request flexible working if it applies to all employees irrespective of care-giving status. Will the Government extend the right to request flexible working to all?

My Lords, I believe that this is a matter that we will discuss when we debate the forthcoming Equality Bill.