I beg to move,
That this House has considered International Women’s Day.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair for this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, and a great pleasure to lead this debate. I was the 265th woman ever to be elected to this place—I think many of us memorise our number because it is important—and I am proud to be the first ever Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, which was made permanent by this Government. I pay tribute to the members of that Committee who are present here today, those who have been members in the past and those who have served on our Committee’s staff. We will continue to work to keep the issues that affect women right at the top of the political agenda. May I also, on behalf of the whole House, thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time on the Floor of the House, demonstrating the importance of this debate?
In this relatively short debate we have the opportunity to celebrate, reflect on and contemplate the lives of women under this year’s theme of forging a more gender-balanced world. There is much to celebrate and we should not be shy in doing so. One hundred years ago, Nancy Astor was the first woman to take her seat in this House of Commons. I am proud that she was, like me, a Conservative woman, and that she was not afraid to speak out. She very much serves as a reminder to us all of our obligations to speak truth to power, even if that sometimes does not make us very popular. One hundred years on, we have our second female Prime Minister, tackling the most difficult political issues that this country has seen in our political lifetime—again, following in that tradition of Conservative women speaking truth to powerful EU leaders on our behalf.
There are record numbers of women in work in this country, and that economic empowerment of women is the pathway to equality. The UK has some of the best anti-discrimination laws in the world and a gender pay gap that, for women under 30, has all but evaporated. This Government have shown that they understand the challenges faced by women who have children and want to return to work, with their returnships programme. The expansion of apprenticeships has also helped women positively to progress in their careers, and there are programmes that give women access to complete degree-level qualifications, including my constituent Karen Russell, who works for Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. After 14 years as a healthcare assistant, Karen has been supported to develop and complete her degree qualification while working part time and looking after her family, and she is now a staff nurse in our hospital emergency department. This is the support that women need so that they can be economically independent in the future.
I thank my hon. Friend and fellow member of the Select Committee for raising that point. I am married to a lawyer who works for the firm Kingsley Napley, where more than 50% of the partners are women. However, I urge my hon. Friend to look at some of the other law firms in the City of London that do not have the same proportion of women at the top, and to encourage his daughter to look for those good employers so that she, too, can progress right the way through to the top.
The hon. Gentleman raises a really important point. I think that the biggest amount of progress has been in the Government making companies publish their gender pay gap; for the first time ever, the pay gap has become an issue that is on the agenda of businesses throughout the country. However, in answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, there has not been nearly enough progress. Although the gender pay gap has all but evaporated for women under 30, for older women it is alive and well, and we need to resolve it. I will come to that issue later in my speech.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), I believe in equality of opportunity. We need to continue to look for ways of ensuring equality of opportunity for women in our communities. As women we are resilient, but we are so resilient that we sometimes need to stop and appreciate the blatant discrimination that still pervades our lives every single day, and which still denies some women the level playing field of opportunity. Too many women’s confidence is sapped—their career even destroyed—by bullying and sexual harassment at work. Forty per cent. of women in this country, and millions more around the world, suffer sexual harassment.
That issue was well highlighted this week by the day of action that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and I hosted, when women from across the country, supported by CARE International, came into Parliament to lobby Members of Parliament to support the new International Labour Organisation global convention, which will outlaw sexual harassment and abuse at work in every country in the world, if it gets the support of their Governments.
Discrimination is still blatant because so much of the enforcement of the laws that we have passed in the UK is not working as we would want it to. In the Government’s new good workplace report, they set out the importance of enforcement of workplace rights, and they are right to do so. However, I urge the Minister for Women also to look at the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and the laws that pertain to health and safety, as well as others that are being looked at as part of the good workplace report. Legislation puts enforcement powers for those anti-discrimination laws into the hands of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but if it is not exercising those powers, we should give them to somebody who does. No one should be prepared to stand by and watch more than 50,000 women a year leave their jobs simply because they are pregnant, even though we already have laws in place to prohibit that.
One in eight women in this country want to start their own business, often as a way to create their own business culture, yet they find that just 9% of funding for start-ups goes to women, despite women-led businesses delivering double the returns on investment for financial backers. When a woman looks to Parliament to fix the problem, she might see a very strong Prime Minister admired for her resilience, but on these green Benches—well, perhaps not today, but usually—she will see that just one in three MPs are women. As I have said, the most important way to build in a resilient equality between men and women is through women’s economic empowerment—women’s full participation in work, including here.
The truth is that many of the barriers in women’s workplaces, including those that remain here, are in need of reform. With regard to the laws that we are so proud of having passed in this place, the reality is that a lack of enforcement on the ground often makes them worse than useless for many women. Most women do not work in the City of London, in large accountancy or law firms or in City institutions that may have modernised their approaches. Our constituents face a very different workplace, often still stuck in the ’70s, with presenteeism, a long hours culture, a lack of flexible working, employers who routinely use non-disclosure agreements to cover up discrimination, and management who look down on dads who want to take parental leave to share in the care of the newest members of their family.
I know that the right hon. Lady’s Committee has been doing a lot of work on non-disclosure agreements and she has very much led the charge on that. It is a very complex legal issue, but does she agree that a starting point could well be to compel companies legislatively to publish the number of NDAs that they use, the reason that they use them, and how many they use each year?
The hon. Lady brings up a very important possible solution, which our Committee will certainly look at. We have been struck by how many companies and organisations do not use NDAs at all, particularly the Government. Some people have said that the reason the Government—or the civil service—do not use them any more is the oversight of Ministers and the media, so, as she says, transparency may well be a way forward.
We have to shake free from the notion that a modern workplace will cost too much to deliver and be too much of a burden on business, because the fact that millennial dads tell us that they would rather downgrade their jobs than take a promotion or a pay rise because they cannot balance their family and work commitments indicates that productivity is really under threat. With more than 1 million economically inactive mums not working because there are not the jobs that allow them to look after their kids and work as well, we have a real problem to tackle. As labour becomes in shorter supply after we leave the EU, it is a problem that we cannot afford to continue to sweep under the carpet. We need modernisation and reform.
That message of modernisation is for this place, too. One of the very first reports by the Women and Equalities Committee was on women in the House of Commons. I was struck by the plans that all political parties have in place to address the under- representation of women in Parliament. The proof of the pudding will obviously be at the next election as to how many get elected. There is no way of disguising the real appetite for change among the parties, but can we identify the same appetite for change with regard to Parliament itself? Can we be so sure, when the political parties are recruiting a new generation of female MPs, that they will be arriving in a place that they want to stay in, or will it still look as though it is in a time warp?
Very good work has been done by Professor Sarah Childs, thanks to Mr Speaker’s significant commitment to modernising this place. He put his money where his mouth is and commissioned her to produce a report in which she painted a picture of what a good Parliament looks like. Some of those measures have been taken up—in particular, proxy voting for parents with new children. I note that Madam Deputy Speaker was in the Chair when that change to Standing Orders went through; we thank her for her support. We do not now routinely sit through the night, and there are some rudimentary family facilities in Parliament. The crèche is important. However, what someone whose children are beyond crèche age needs as a parent is certainty about what they are doing day by day, so that they can plan what they might be doing on a particular day. That certainty is wholly lacking in this place, as evidenced by this debate, which should have started about two hours ago. We need to do more to make sure that parents, whether they are commuters or need to get back to their constituencies to look after their children, have certainty as to when we will be sitting here. I can see one or two hon. Members nodding vigorously at these comments.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that implementing a process such as the Scottish Parliament’s set decision time, together with electronic voting, which would seriously reduce the amount of time that we waste in this place, would be two very positive steps forward?
The hon. Lady is probably pressing me a bit too far on electronic voting, but I definitely think that the Scottish Parliament has a very sensible way of organising its day. People know that voting will take place at a particular time, so they do not lose that opportunity to get together, to see each other and to have all the important conversations that they need to have as a body of people, but they do it at a regular time during the day. We can stay here until 1 o’clock in the morning debating all we like, but it should not be at the expense of people’s family life. One colleague has told me about the real problems of not being able to get home at night for her teenage children. We are neglecting this at our peril, because such good women will vote with their feet and not necessarily stand for re-election at the next election.
This is partly why the Women and Equalities Committee has decided to set up a Sub-Committee to scrutinise the implementation of a recent report, “UK Gender-Sensitive Parliament Audit 2018”, published by a group of MPs including my hon. Friends the Members for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) and for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), the hon. Member for Luton South (Mr Shuker) and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), as well as Members in the other place. The report looks at how we could make the House of Commons a better place to be a female MP.
My right hon. Friend is making some very powerful arguments on the way that this place could change to make it a better place for female MPs and mothers, but does she agree that such changes would be good for fathers as well? I have had quite a few conversations with dads with young children about how difficult they find some of Parliament’s practices and hours.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Many of our colleagues have young children and have partners who are working; they have the same pressures on them as their constituents.
A gender-sensitive Parliament would be good for everybody. We have lacked to date a process and procedure to take these really good ideas and make change in this place. Change is glacially slow, and we have to change that and make these things happen. The Sub-Committee has not yet formed and met, but it will look at the strong recommendations made by the “UK Gender-Sensitive Parliament Audit”, which include increasing the predictability of parliamentary business, reforming the sitting hours, eliminating bullying and harassment, and implementing the new behaviour code and grievance procedures—the list goes on. I hope that Members will agree with what I hope will be a change to the Standing Orders, so that our Committee can scrutinise what not only the Government but Parliament are doing on these issues.
As a House of Commons, we have not grasped this issue in the way we need to and in the way that most modern Parliaments have. I am immensely proud to be a Member of Parliament and to be the first ever woman to represent my constituency. Indeed, I am still the only woman to ever represent a constituency in north Hampshire, although we have quite a few incredibly powerful women elsewhere in Hampshire, one of whom was just sitting on the Front Bench. It is our responsibility to ensure that the women who follow us have more opportunity and economic empowerment and that our daughters—wherever they live, and whatever their race or religion—have the same opportunity as our sons.
Order. Before we proceed, I am afraid that I will have to introduce an initial time limit of seven minutes, to ensure that everybody gets an equal chance to make all the important points that have to be made. I would also like to welcome to the Gallery of the Chamber Stacey Abrams from the USA. It is good to have an international input to our proceedings. Ms Abrams was the Democratic candidate for Governor of Georgia and the House of Representatives minority leader, and we are delighted to be observed by her this afternoon.
In the first International Women’s Day debate I attended, I promised to read out the names of the women killed by men since the last International Women’s Day. Today I will honour that promise. Over the years, I have had the pleasure of meeting the families of these women, who were grateful that their loved ones were being remembered. I read these names not only to continue to highlight how male violence can terrorise ordinary women’s lives, but to pay tribute to these women and those who did not survive and give them the opportunity to be heard. The reason that these women are no longer with us is that they are hard to see, hard to hear and hard to believe. I could not do this without the brilliant work of the Counting Dead Women project and Karen Ingala Smith, who tirelessly records the lives of these women. The first name I will read out is that of a woman who was murdered just days after I rose to my feet here in this Chamber a year ago.
Their names are: Jennifer Rogers; Heather Whitbread; Michelle Savage; Diane Jones; Jenny Cronin; Leyla Mtumwa; Ourania Lambrou; Tanesha Melbourne; Tracy Stonehouse; Alexis Flynn; Lesley Potter; Viktorija Sokolova; Margaret Howlett; Maryna Kavaliauskas; Angela Craddock; Samantha Clarke; Jennifer Morgan; Julie Hunt; Hollie Kerrell; Elizabeth Lacey; Fiona Fisher; Faye Caliman; Nicola Roberts; Onees Khatoon; Jessica Patel; Rosina Coleman; Bernadette Green; Sophie Cavanagh; Angela Conoby; Christina Abbotts; Laura Mortimer; Denise Rosser; Joanne Bishop; Jill Hibberd; Andra Hilitanu; Molly Frank; Sofija Kaczan; Tina Cantello; Marie Gibson; Gitana Matukeviciene; Tracy Patsalides; Gita Suri; Klarissa-Charlene Faith; Shuren Ma; Samantha Toms; Lorna Myers; Stela Domador-Kuzma; Patricia Franks; Dawn Sturgess; Gina Ingles and her son; Riasat Bi; Katerina Makunova; Lesley Davies; Sheila Thomas; Lucy McHugh; Sam Eastwood; Karen Peter; Kelly Franklin; Katherine Kemp; Tracey Evans; Marie Walker; Simonne Kerr; Barbara Davison; Kaltoun Saleh; Carole Harrison; Sharon Perrett; Raneem Oudeh; Khaola Saleem; Celia Levitt; Julie Owens; Joan Hoggett; Memunatu Warne; Kylie Dembrey; Susan Gyde; Kay Martin; Cristina Magda-Calancea; Frances Hubbard; Sandra Zmijan; Margaret Harris; Sharon Harris; Jeanna Maher; Glenda Jackson; Avan Najmadeen; Natalie Saunders; Sarah Wellgreen; Nazia Ali; Teresa Garner; Lynn Forde; Mavis Bran; Sheena Jackson; Fiona McDonald; Natalie Smith; Tanseen Sheikh; Sana Muhammad; Pauline Kilkenny; Katarzyna Paszek; Maureen Watkins; Jacqueline Allen; Samantha Gosney; Karen Cleary-Brown; Barbara Findley; Grace Millane; Maureen Whale; Sally Cavender; June Knight; Keely McGrath; Poppy Devey-Waterhouse; Lana Owen; Marissa Aldrich; Parwin Quriashi; Angela Mittal; June Jones; Joy Morgan; Lisa Jane McArity; Charlotte Huggins; Jay Edmunds; Simbiso Aretha Moula; Sarah Ashraf; Asma Begum; Luz Isaza Villegas; Leanne Unsworth; Christy Walshe; Alison Hunt; Mary Annie Sowerby; Regina Marilyn Paul; Margaret Smythe; Mary Page; Rosie Darbyshire; Aliny Mendes; and Sarah Henshaw.
I could feel the nervousness in the room that I would not finish reading the list within seven minutes. That is how we should feel every single minute of every day—nervous that one of our constituents will wake up dead. The fear and tension that we felt in our bodies that I would not get through the list and would be made to sit down is what victims of domestic violence feel every minute that they walk around their houses. The second they wake up in the morning, they feel frightened and have to walk on awkward eggshells all day long. These women need us in this place to hear their names and hear their stories, so that we can change and make it so that next year’s list might at least be a little bit shorter.
I would like to praise my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for a fantastic opening speech and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for her hugely powerful speech.
Gender equality is a crucial agenda for the whole planet. The reality is that we simply will not fix the many challenges that the world faces today with half the world’s population locked out of being able to contribute to any of the solutions. It is five years since we held the Girl Summit in 2014, while I was Secretary of State for International Development. It was an international summit to use the UK’s role as a major aid investor to step up to the plate on gender equality. In doing so, we wanted to highlight two key issues that I felt did not get anywhere close to the level of attention domestically and internationally that they needed for the many women they affected: female genital mutilation, and early and forced marriage. It was all too easy for many people in Britain to think that those two issues were other countries’ problems. In fact, it turned out that they were actually ours as well. The Girl summit in 2014 was our attempt to try to provide some momentum not only to an international agenda that needed it, but, as I and the then Home Secretary—now the Prime Minister—felt, to a domestic agenda that needed it, too.
I am proud of what we have been able to do since. I wanted to say in this debate that I very much hope it will not be the last Girl summit this country hosts. I very much hope that, as UK aid steadily shifts, we can make sure it keeps at its heart the issue of tackling gender inequality. In the end, countries that are not able to use all their human capital simply will not be successful, whatever broader development programmes they have under way. It is now crucial that the UK plays its role in delivering the sustainable development goals, particularly goal 5 on gender equality. This country worked so hard to make sure that that goal had a list of issues to tackle that could transform the lives of women wherever they were in the world, which included the issues we campaigned on at the Girl summit.
Before I turn briefly to the domestic agenda, I want to finish talking about the international agenda by saying that I am proud of what UK aid does in helping other countries to achieve gender equality alongside the path our own is on. I do not accept that there is a choice to be made between an aid strategy in our national interest and an aid strategy in our global interest. Anyone who suggests that there is somehow such a choice is misunderstanding the fact that we live in a common world, where helping other countries escape from poverty is one of the best ways to ensure our own future as well as theirs. I would be very opposed to seeing what I think has been a very effective aid strategy under the Department for International Development subsumed into a Foreign Office one. Our aid strategy should be about pioneering work on things such as gender equality; it should not be used simply to curry favour with other countries around the world.
The other thing I want to say is that, since that Girl summit, many things have continued to change in the world, not least the issue of social media. I want to finish by looking at the aspect of gender equality in the context of that social media challenge. The reality is that, while social media platforms can be amazing platforms for the voices of girls and women to be heard loud and clear, they will not prove to be successful platforms for any of that if those voices are just drowned out by trolling, abuse and the kind of domestic abuse that happens offline, sometimes with fatal effects, if it shifts on to the online world as well.
I very much join others in calling for more action to be taken in relation to the social media giants, and for Facebook and Google to step up to the plate to do more of what they can to combat this. It is interesting that when we look at some of the surveys by organisations such as Amnesty International, we see that they are completely shocking in relation to the impact of social media on women. Amnesty International’s research back in late 2017 showed that one in five women it polled said they had experienced abuse or harassment through social media. Of those, more than a quarter, shockingly, had received direct or indirect threats of physical or sexual violence, while 47% had experienced sexist or misogynistic abuse and nearly 60% said that they had no idea who the perpetrator was. Many MPs and colleagues in this House will know what it is like, as I do, to be targeted online purely because of the views we hold, which is totally unacceptable.
We can and should do much more about this. I think we need domestic action, and I would like to pay tribute to the many companies that are now actually stepping up to the plate and showing that they can use social media for a positive good. For example, Avon has a fantastic campaign called “Stand4her”. There are brands such as Missguided, which has the #keeponbeingyou movement, which will do no more photoshopping; it will just use models as they are—all kinds of models. They will look as beautiful as they are in real life; they do not need any touching up or anything like that. Other brands include Emily Atack and #ITSjustgotreal, which says that
“we will not be smoothing out any lines, wrinkles, lumps or bumps to sell you something that just is not real.”
That is the kind of leadership we need, but I would like to see it matched by our social media companies as well. If we can have stronger domestic action on this, we can perhaps, as we have on the international gender equality front, lead on this gender equality campaign too.
I am delighted to speak in this debate on my first International Women’s Day as a Member of this House. I just want to say that the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) reminds me that, when I was a teenager, my cousin was brutally raped and murdered. The speech was really powerful, and I just want to pay tribute to her for it. I would like to thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and Members across the House who supported the application for this debate, and the Backbench Business Committee for helping to facilitate it.
Today, I would like to celebrate some of the achievements and advancements women have made and highlight some of the challenges we still face. Last year marked 100 years since women gained the right to vote and to sit in the House of Commons. We marked the occasion with the brilliant 209 Women exhibition, which powerfully displayed the contribution women are making to this House daily.
We have also seen the rise of the Me Too movement, which has swept the globe. It has forced a long overdue reassessment of our treatment of and response to sexual harassment and abuse. We have seen the first conviction in a female genital mutilation case, which sends a strong message that this crime cannot be tolerated, and we have also seen the upskirting legislation. However, there is more to do, and I hope we can soon classify misogyny as a hate crime.
Within the Labour party, we have just launched important new sexual harassment procedures, which give victims access to an independent adviser throughout their case and support from the Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre. This is industry-leading practice, and is rightly being celebrated.
Although much can be celebrated, we are yet to achieve full gender equality for the women of the world. Recently, in a conversation with a friend of mine, she said, “We women have never won anything without a fight”—indeed, what is won without a fight?—and that is true. International Women’s Day is about all women, from all backgrounds and all ages, lifestyles and experiences.
This morning, I was delighted to meet two young women—16 and 17 years old—from the Defence for Children International Palestine Section, who are speaking up for their rights and are fighting for them, and rightly so, like those from the suffragettes to Rosa Parks, the women who blazed a trail in this House and the fantastic women in the Chamber today, including in the Gallery. I am pleased to say that some constituents of mine from Lewisham East are here. With all that said, in this day and age many women and girls do not have the ability to fight, but we who can fight must fight for them.
I will name a few areas in which much more needs to be done to reduce gender inequality: employment, gender pay, pensions, prisons and the need to eliminate period poverty. On employment, the female employment rate is still low compared with that for men. On gender pay, female pay is much lower than that of their male counterparts, and the median rate is up to £100 less. The reality of money in old age is far from equal, and I do not think anyone can disagree with that when we consider the WASPI women, who have been failed in their retirement funding. This should not be the legacy for many of our older British female population.
On prisons, according to the Prison Reform Trust, nearly one in three foreign national women in prison is serving a sentence for drug offences. That does not sound right. Sentencing guidelines should be reassessed to consider mitigating factors, such as evidence of coercion. Black British women are over-represented in prison, and that is overwhelmingly due to the socio-economic inequalities that arise from deprivation, disadvantage and discrimination.
The extent of period poverty is a national embarrassment, and socks, toilet paper and kitchen towels are some of the items being used by girls and women as sanitary products. Period poverty is on the rise, and one in 10 girls is unable to afford sanitary products each month. This issue is fundamental to equality for women, and the Government should abolish VAT on sanitary products and immediately explore ways to achieve universal, free access. We could start with our own house, and I am supporting the campaign to ensure that free sanitary products are available here.
A 2017 report from the World Economic Forum said that it could be another 100 years before the global equality gap between men and women disappears. I hope I speak for the whole House when I say that we cannot afford to wait that long. Such a responsibility should not be taken lightly by this Government, or any other.
When making her maiden speech 100 years ago Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat in this House, reassured the crowd of men around her. She said that Members should not be frightened and that
“when Drake and Raleigh wanted to set out on their venturesome careers, some cautious person said, ‘Do not do it; it has never been tried before. You stay at home, my sons, cruising around in home waters.”—[Official Report, 24 February 1920; Vol. 125, c. 1623.]
Like those other pioneers who set out from Plymouth before her, Nancy Astor charted a new course, and changed the world. Thanks to her, when I was growing up in the late 1980s I thought that being Prime Minister was a woman’s job. Thanks to her, I am standing here today, surrounded by talented female colleagues—I am glad to see that some male colleagues are also here supporting us. Also thanks to her, when I was elected my daughter said to me, “Mummy, are men allowed to be MPs?”
International Women’s Day is a chance to reflect on how far we have come, and to celebrate the achievements of women in all parts of the House. I pay tribute to the work of brilliant colleagues such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who is the Mother of the House, and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) who made such a powerful speech a moment ago. My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) does a fantastic job speaking up for women, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) referred to her own work on international development. My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) cannot be here today, but she has been a powerful campaigner for women during her time in this place.
As the Conservative party’s vice-chair for women, I will take a moment to speak about what my party does for women, and I suggest it is no coincidence that the first female MP and the first female Prime Minister were Conservatives. We believe that someone’s talents, rather than their identity, background or gender, should determine where they go in life, and that women should have the same choices and opportunities as men. I am a feminist because I am a Conservative, not in spite of that. The Conservative Government introduced mandatory gender pay gap reporting and the right to request flexible working, and they are tackling crimes that particularly target women, such as modern slavery and domestic violence. This Government are consulting on extending redundancy protection for pregnant women, and on stopping the use of non-disclosure agreements to cover up sexual harassment.
Our economic reforms have also supported women, with 1.6 million more women in work than in 2010, increases to the national living wage and personal allowance, and the extension of free childcare to 30 hours a week, which particularly benefits women. There has been great progress, but we all recognise that the job is far from done. For example, although the gender pay gap for full-time employees is close to zero for those aged 18 to 39, women’s careers and earning potential still take a hit after they have children. Fewer than 10% of FTSE 100 companies have a female CEO.
Unconscious bias and discrimination are still holding women back. Just last week a man told me that women do not want to stand for election because they would rather stay at home in the evening, and because men are the breadwinners and like to work hard—I had to pause for a moment in disbelief that such things are still being said, but it happened literally last week. I have lost count of the number of times people have asked me how I “manage” to be an MP and look after my children. It is as if that is some kind of incredible feat, as opposed to what women do day in, day out, when juggling childcare with being a Member of Parliament or any demanding career.
On this International Women’s Day I urge the Government to build on Nancy Astor’s legacy and go even further to make equal opportunity a reality for women. I wish to suggest practical actions on three fronts: reforming working practices, giving families greater choice in how to share caring responsibilities, and challenging the sexual stereotypes that prevent women from achieving their potential. That way we can create a society that works for everyone.
Women must have equal opportunities to succeed at work and gain financial security. Sexual harassment, which curtails women’s careers, must be stamped out. We must close the maternity pay gap. We know that when women reach their late 20s and early 30s their wages start to plateau. Not only do women earn less, but they also save less and hold fewer assets. By the age of 65 the average woman has just £13,000 in savings and under £36,000 in a pension—just one fifth of the average man’s pension at the same age. The Institute for Fiscal Studies puts that down to mothers working part time.
The 40 hours, five-days-a-week model that is still so pervasive in our country was designed to suit single-earner households and stay-at-home carers, but that no longer reflects how many people wish to organise their lives. The Government have introduced the right for employees to request flexible working, and they are considering placing a greater onus for that on employers. I think we should go further and ensure that all jobs can be flexible, unless proven otherwise.
I want to see more equal choices in modern families, because the great inequality between maternity and paternity rights makes it harder for women to participate in the workforce, and harder for fathers to spend time with their children. The take-up of shared parental leave is low, and there is no statutory option for partners to take more than two weeks’ leave without that affecting the mother’s entitlement. There is also a limit to the number of antenatal appointments that men can attend, and we must do more to enable fathers to be involved in their child’s life from day one.
Finally, we must end the social attitudes that prevent women from achieving their potential. To really tackle sexism in society we must understand, and undermine, its root causes. We must be unafraid to challenge outdated attitudes whenever we encounter them. We must be forceful about what we will no longer accept, and we must finish the journey that Nancy Astor started 100 years ago.
Thank you Madam Deputy Speaker, and I wish everybody here and beyond a happy International Women’s Day.
Women’s day was celebrated for the first time 110 years ago in the United States in protest at the working conditions to which garment workers—mostly female—were subjected. Although we as a global society have made significant strides towards gender equality since then, it is important to acknowledge that issues regarding the workplace, and about violence towards and the subjugation of women, are nowhere close to being resolved.
As we have heard, in this place 100 years ago Viscountess Nancy Astor made history and became the first female Member of Parliament to take her seat. Countess Markievicz of Sinn Féin was, of course, the first woman to be elected to this place, although she never took her seat. Today 209 women sit in the House of Commons, and 206 women in the House of Lords, but there is still work to do.
Some challenges have merely evolved in nature. For example, over a six-month period in 2017, women MPs were sent nearly 26,000 abusive tweets—that point has already been touched on, and I hope that the Government will respond to it. We need to address anonymity on social media, and the need for a compulsory code of practice for social media publishers. Social media giants must recognise their responsibility and cease hiding behind the description of “platforms”. They publish and make money from this issue, and they have an effect on our democracy, and especially on female politicians. Today, 2.7 billion women live in countries where their employment choices are legally restricted because of their gender. In Bangladesh, 73% of female garment workers have witnessed or experienced workplace violence. And here in England, Wales, and Scotland over half of women say that they have been sexually harassed at work.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. She is making a very powerful point. She will be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and I are ambassadors for White Ribbon Scotland. Does she agree that it is very important to get more men to sign up and speak out about violence against women, and that they should sign the pledge that says:
“never commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women in all its forms”?
That applies in Scotland, as well as in the other nations around the UK.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. What strikes me as a female politician is perhaps the risk of women talking about women’s issues and that in itself not generating status and attention. Of course, women’s issues are as much a matter for men as they are for women. That we are all here to discuss this matter is extremely significant.
Violence against women remains a major issue. Globally, one in three women will experience either physical partner violence or sexual violence in her lifetime. In 2017, 137 women across the world were murdered by a member of their own family every single day. Women and girls are routinely denied rights to their own bodies and lives. Some 9 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 have been victims of forced sex in the past year alone. At least 200 million women and girls alive today are victims of female genital mutilation; 137,000 of them live in the UK.
There is still much to be done, but we should celebrate the progress we have made and the incredible women in our world today. Last year, Nadia Murad of Iraq—I was honoured to meet her two years ago; I am sure many others have, too—was awarded a Nobel peace prize for her work. She has amplified and raised the voice of the victim, not as a victim but as the voice of a survivor. That had so much impact and she very much deserved to receive the Nobel peace prize. Sinéad Burke, in Ireland, passionately advocates for people with disabilities to be included in design considerations. Rachel Williams of Newport, Wales, works tirelessly for survivors of domestic abuse since becoming a survivor herself.
I will be brief, because there are many other people who want to speak, but I am proud of this point: the National Assembly of Wales, my home Parliament of course, has now just about reached gender parity, with women currently accounting for 47% of our Assembly Members. I am optimistic for the future ahead of us.
One other point I am very proud of—other Members have raised it—is that we can now actually discuss periods in Parliament and talk about period poverty. I will mention Councillor Elyn Stevens of Rhondda Cynon Taf, whose campaign has been successful in the establishment in the National Assembly of Wales of a £1 million fund to address period poverty in Wales. For a woman of my generation, even five years ago I would have been embarrassed to talk about it—I would have gone bright red—but now we can talk about it.
I would like to end on these famous words:
“Here’s to strong women: may we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.”
At the same time, we must acknowledge that global power structures still exist which liberate some women—possibly us here—at the expense of others. We must therefore work towards liberation, equal opportunity and justice for women everywhere. Dydd Gŵyl Rhyngwladol Menywod hapus i chi i gyd: happy International Women’s Day.
Over the past century, women’s voices have become louder. I am happy to add my voice to the brilliant speeches from all Members here today calling for further progress. I also thank my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), for remembering those women who lost their lives in the past year due to domestic violence.
Today, women are more represented than ever before, but there is still so much to do to achieve proper gender balance in both the workplace and here in Parliament. I believe the best way to shift this imbalance is through education and by example: supporting young girls to have the confidence and self-belief to break into sectors that are traditionally male-dominated. We know that girls are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects at school and in STEM jobs in the economy. Despite being 50% of the workforce, women account for less than 15% of the jobs in engineering and technology sectors, according to a recent report in The Guardian.
Having started my life as a civil engineer, I realise just how unrepresented women are in the construction industry. I would like to praise the work of the National Association of Women in Construction, which is doing its very best to move the focus from gender to ability, to make sure we get the best people for the job, regardless of their gender.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I remember well myself being told at my comprehensive school in Knowsley that “Girls don’t do technical drawing courses.” We had to do needlework and home economics—until, that is, the headmaster met my mother.
It was National Apprenticeship Week this week and I met some fabulous young girls in the construction and technology industries. Alia Saddique, Olivia Dobell, Chyanne Mwangi, Chyanne Brown and Megan Whitbread are all blazing a trail and they were here in Parliament this week to tell us what they are doing to change things. And things are changing—earlier this week, I visited the University of East London to mark National Apprenticeship Week in my role as apprenticeship ambassador. On my tour of its hi-tech facilities, such as a computer-aided manufacturing room, I met a number of degree apprentices. Of the 14 students using the new technology, four were women—roughly 30%. Some progress is being made, although not enough.
Technology should be a massive enabler for women in the workplace and we must ensure that it is. Being able to use modern collaboration tools enables employees to work at home, participate in video conference calls, and work with other co-workers anywhere in the world. These trends in technology will enable women to become agile workers and achieve better life-work balance. I truly believe these developments are even more liberating and profound then anything we can do in this place. They will also help women who want to return to the workplace after a career break.
The importance of role models can never be overstated. You cannot be what you cannot see. We have many remarkable women leading the way in West Sussex: Susan Pyper, our lord lieutenant; Dianne Sheppard, who leads Chichester District Council; Louise Goldsmith, the leader of the county council; Katy Bourne, our police and crime commissioner; Kate Mosse, the famous author; Jane Longmore, the vice chancellor of Chichester University, and her deputy, Professor Catherine Harper; Sheila Legrave, who runs Chichester College; Dame Marianne Griffiths, the CEO of the Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust; and Sam Allen, the CEO of the Sussex Partnership Trust.
Building confidence and establishing good networks is a vital first step in achieving the empowerment of women in our society. Twenty years ago, in 1999, the Everywoman Network was established by two remarkable woman, Maxine Benson and Karen Gill. Today the network has many thousands of members, and is well supported by both businesses and the public sector across all sectors of the economy. They run leadership programmes, networking and recognition events, and online mentoring services for women in the UK and beyond. I am proud to say that Karen Gill is a constituent of mine and, together with her co-founder Maxine, they are helping to ensure that the pipeline of female talent for leadership roles is growing stronger and stronger with every year.
Rightly, our efforts to better the lives of women and girls go beyond our shores. I am pleased that we are leading the global effort to reach girls across the world and give them an education. As we have seen with inspirational conviction from women like Malala, education is empowerment. I saw for myself the joy that learning brings to children in desperate situations when I visited a refugee camp in Tanzania last year. The children told me that they were working hard to become doctors, lawyers and leaders of the future. I believe it was knowing they were lucky to be learning that gave them that burning desire and hope for their future. I am pleased that our Government are targeting help towards the most marginalised girls around the world through the global challenges research fund. Those girls, who face multiple disadvantages, will hopefully be better educated, healthier, participate in the labour market and earn high incomes in the future.
It was former UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, who said:
“The world will never realise 100 per cent of its goals if 50 per cent of its people cannot realise their potential”.
When we unleash the power of women, we can secure the future for all. On this International Women’s Day, we will redouble our efforts to unleash the power of women in our society. As Chichester-born Helena Morrissey said in the title of her most recent book, it is “A Good Time to be a Girl”.
Tackling sexism in the workplace and employing more women is the key to making the world richer, more equal and less prone to devastating financial collapse, according to the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde. She says that some countries could boost the size of their economies by up to 35% if they abandoned discriminatory laws and took advantage of women’s skills. Last year, in our FTSE top 100 companies, the number of female chief executives was the same number as that of men named Dave or Steve. There is no shortage of exceptionally talented women in business, yet representation is still poor and the pay gap is still very evident in most areas of employment.
Even small changes can make a difference and create a more inclusive working environment. In my constituency office, a member of my staff team returned from maternity leave and was given time to express milk so that she could continue to breastfeed her baby. She is a skilled, intelligent young woman who is a great asset to our team. If she had not been given that reasonable adjustment, we may have lost her from the workforce. The seemingly small things can make a massive difference to women’s wellbeing and have a great, positive impact on the world of work and our economy.
I could name so many great, high-achieving women from history, including women who are alive today, some of whom are here in this place. I would like to focus, however, on real heroes in our country and around the world: the single mum who has three jobs, starting as a school cleaner at 6 am, then working as a lunchtime supervisor, and finally working a shift stocking shelves at the supermarket at 10 o’clock at night; the woman caring for her disabled child while also caring for her mum with dementia; the woman battling stage 4 cancer and continuing to work; and the woman starting a new job having moved out of her family home after surviving years of domestic violence. These are the women who have been hit hardest by the Government’s tax and benefit changes and who continue to fight on, managing life’s everyday challenges, made worse by nine years of relentless austerity.
In recent years, reports have shown that 86% of the burden of austerity since 2010 has fallen on women. There have been punitive benefits changes, cuts to legal aid, job insecurity, the closure of refuges and advice centres, and cuts to Sure Start centres. The women who face all these challenges every day of their lives are the ones we should acknowledge and pay tribute to today.
Charlotte Brontë said in “Jane Eyre”:
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will”.
It was true in the days of Charlotte Brontë, as it is true for women today. Women have always had this strength and passion, and I am proud to celebrate that today. Happy International Women’s Day, sisters.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker). I know from personal experience that there are some very strong women in Colne Valley, and she is definitely one of them. It is also a great pleasure to speak in this debate to celebrate women across the whole world. We are celebrating and highlighting women’s achievements, as well as their tenacity and determination to beat the odds.
We can all cite many examples of exceptional women locally, nationally and internationally, but I start by focusing on an issue that predominantly affects women: domestic abuse, and specifically coercive and controlling behaviour. At this stage, I commend the Minister for her dedication and determination to stamp out domestic abuse and to build on the groundbreaking, world-leading work carried out by our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), who is sadly no longer in her place, but who once again helped us all to pay tribute to those who have lost their lives as a result of domestic abuse.
This Government have done more than ever before to tackle violence against women and girls, but there is still more to do. It is not acceptable that in today’s society, one in four women in the UK will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime and one in five will experience sexual violence. Looking around the Chamber today—this includes the officials in the box—that means that probably five of us will experience domestic abuse and four will experience violence. These are, so often, hidden crimes that need to be brought out of the shadows.
That was recently brought to life in my surgery. A very brave young lady came to see me and told me of her experiences. For obvious reasons, I will not go into too much detail, but she raised a very important and relevant point. Her husband has been convicted of coercive behaviour and is now subject to quite a lengthy restraining order. However, as things stand, he still has shared parental responsibility for their children. I am led to believe that the restraining order does not trump parental responsibility, hence, for example, should any of the children need a passport before the age of 18, their father still has to sign the forms. Therefore, the restraining order would become null and void in that respect. Will the Minister look at such situations and see whether legislation can be strengthened to ensure that any restraining order takes precedence over parental responsibility?
On a lighter note, when I look around my local schools and nearby colleges, universities and hospitals, I see many amazing women heading up these public sector organisations. Across Derbyshire, we can now add Bishop Libby Lane to our amazing list of women. Bishop Libby was the Church of England’s first female bishop and she will become the first female Bishop of Derby after Easter. I look forward to welcoming her to the area.
On a political note, I am proud that four out of the five Erewash MPs since the seat was created in 1983 have been women. Erewash is definitely leading the way when it comes to female representation, and long may that continue. It shows that women can get into politics at whatever level, whether that is parish level, local authority level or as Members of Parliament, and we must never forget the House of Lords, where there are some very strong women. We still have a long way to go with regard to getting equal representation, and I know that everybody in the House today is playing their part in helping to achieve that.
When I talk in debates such as the one today, I am always conscious of mentioning names, because I am always fearful that I will forget somebody. I mentioned Bishop Libby Lane and she is the only one that I am going to mention by name, because so many women across Erewash and Derbyshire are so important to everybody’s lives. That includes businesswomen as well as those in the public sector, and not only those who are heading up companies but those who play other important parts in industry. One of the traits of women is that we do not shout out. We do not say how good we are; we just get on with life. We get on with conducting our business, looking after our family, furthering our education and making a success of whatever we do. I finish by commending everybody for playing their part to raise the success of women and for making sure that those who are listening today realise that if we can do it, anybody can.
It is an absolute pleasure to speak in this year’s International Women’s Day debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing the time.
International Women’s Day provides an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come and on how far we still have to go. We also get the opportunity as sisters to celebrate our sisterhood. The first International Women’s Day was held back in 1911, at a time when women were still considered the property of men and our rights were limited, but, with International Women’s Day organised by an international socialist women’s conference, these pioneering women dared to dream of a world beyond oppression, indignity and subordination to patriarchy, of a world where men and women could stand as equals—imagine that!
It would take a further seven years for some women, and a further 17 years for all women, to win the right to vote. Leading that struggle were women such as Sylvia Pankhurst and Battersea’s own Caroline Ganley and Charlotte Despard—I follow in the footsteps of some fantastic women. Courageous socialists, these women refused to accept injustice. They were oppressed, they fought, they struggled. Charlotte was arrested twice, but she fought on, and, because of what she and others did, we now have the right to stand in Parliament as women MPs. In 1918, Charlotte was the first woman to stand in Battersea North, and while she did not win, she paved the way for others to stand, and in 1945, Caroline Ganley became the first woman to be elected for Battersea.
I come now to the present day. For nine years, women have borne the brunt of austerity: many women services have closed, women have been hit hardest by public service job losses and the pay cap, and according to figures from the House of Commons Library, 86% of the cuts since 2010 have fallen on the shoulders of women. It is a near-decade-long assault on women’s rights and freedoms. Women face sexual harassment and domestic abuse. The gender pay gap stands at 20%. I know that all my sisters on both sides of the House will agree that we have to address these inequalities.
Those inequalities are so much worse for working-class women, black women, women from ethnic minorities and disabled women such as myself, and it is as a disabled woman that I want to share something with the House. I have faced many barriers in my life—in education, in the workplace and so forth—so getting elected was a huge achievement, but unfortunately obtaining the additional support I need in this place to operate as an MP has been challenging. I am continuously fighting for additional support but being told by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, “We know you have additional needs, but we are not going to support those additional needs”. It has made it very difficult for me.
The people of Battersea sent me here to represent them, and I should not have to fight the authorities here for the additional support I need, but I will fight on, because that it what I have had to do my whole life. I will keep fighting. It does not stop here. This is the one place where equality should exist and where no one should have to fight for the support they need, whether they are a woman, disabled, a black person, whatever. No one should have to fight that fight.
We have come a long way. We should never forget and never not celebrate it. The struggle and the courage of women such as Charlotte Despard and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who is no longer in her place, paved the way for so many of us, and I am deeply grateful to them. Happy International Women’s Day, sisters, and solidarity!
It is a huge honour to speak in the Chamber on the eve of International Women’s Day and 100 years after the first woman took her seat in this place. What an amazing year it has been. I think of that beautiful day in June when thousands of people took part in processions, dressed in suffragette colours, across each of our capital cities; that inspirational day when hundreds of women from all across the country came here to take part in the Ask Her to Stand event; that powerful day when 100 women MPs from all across the world came here to stand together and share experiences; and that very proud day for me when I held a Pankhurst party on the famous lady’s birthday at which I, as the first woman MP for Chelmsford, joined the woman mayor and woman lord lieutenant to lay a wreath on the plinth where the suffragettes stood and made speeches.
E quality matters. Organisations that are more diverse are more effective and successful, which is why I am proud to chair the all-party group on women in Parliament, the women’s caucus. We work to encourage women to stand and then when they come to this place we stand together to support each other. This has been a great year for the all-party group, and we have made some progress. Just yesterday was a historic day. My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) was entrusted with the vote of my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami), who became the first man to vote by proxy after the birth of his child last weekend.
There is a lot more to do, particularly about online abuse and harassment. That is not just an issue for us in the UK. The Inter-Parliamentary Union recently looked at MPs and staff in 45 countries in Europe: 85% had suffered psychological threats of violence, nearly half had received threats of death, rape or beatings, one in seven had suffered physical violence and one in four had suffered sexual violence. The violence against women in public life is linked to the rise in online abuse, and our election law is not fit for purpose in the digital age. It is changing the way women who are elected act. It is deterring women from standing for election. It is a direct threat to our democracy. I ask the Government to make sure that our new online harms report does everything necessary to rectify this situation.
On a positive note, I was pleased to take part in the gender-sensitive Parliament audit with staff and Members from both this House and the other place. We have made several recommendations that should improve accessibility for all who want to come into this place, and I am glad that the Women and Equalities Committee, under our excellent Chair, is taking responsibility for making sure that those recommendations are implemented. As a member of the Committee, I have been very pleased to take part in our work on women in the workplace more broadly. The numbers of women in work in the UK are at record highs and the gender pay gap is at a record low. I understand that the way we measure the gender pay gap has now been adopted by Bloomberg as the metric by which companies all across the globe will be measured.
People who know me well know that I often like to look at how the UK compares with other countries. A report this week, the women in work index, compared the situation for women all across the OECD. It looked at the gender pay gap, access to maternity rights, and the number of women at different levels. The good news is that in comparison with our peers, we are on the way up—we have gone from No. 14 to No. 13—but wouldn’t it be great to get into the top 10? That is what we should aim for. It is estimated that if we could get to No. 2, it would help not only women but the whole of society. According to the maths, we would enhance the GDP of our country by 9% and enhance prosperity for all.
The women’s economic empowerment strategy on which the Government are working is important for everyone. It focuses on helping women who are on lower pay and helping older women to return to the workforce, and I hope that it will also focus on sexual harassment in the workplace. As was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, a recent survey showed that 40% of women have experienced it, and I strongly support her call for the role of the Equality and Human Rights Commission to be strengthened in that regard.
We in the UK are lucky, however. Across the world, 63 million girls are out of school and in conflict zones. Girls are two and a half times more likely not to be in school than boys and three times more likely to be victims of modern slavery. We should be enormously proud, as women, of the work that we are doing overseas, and as women, we should champion the work of the Department for International Development. Our DFID programmes are leading the fight to end sexual violence and conflict, to stamp out female genital mutilation and to protect children from forced marriages. We must stand together to support all the work that we are doing both here and overseas.
In 2018, CNN declared that it would be the year of the women, because 2017 had not been. We might have started the Me Too movement, but we were promised that the glass ceiling would be shattered by a woman President, and instead we got Donald Trump. To this day, Harvey Weinstein and the Presidents Club men do not face any censure. However, I refuse to let my anger about those injustices deny my sisters around the world this platform on which I can celebrate and shout out their achievements of 2018.
I stand with those women who marched in January and set up the Time’s Up defence fund, now worth $22 billion. I pay tribute to Emma Gonzalez, a student in Parkland, Florida, who inspired us in February by fighting for gun control against President Trump, and to Professor Stephanie Page, who in March announced the details of the male contraceptive pill that she has finally been able to develop. I pay tribute to Caroline Criado-Perez, who finally got us a statue of a woman in Parliament Square—Millicent Fawcett—and to Beyoncé for shattering the record for the number of YouTube views for her performance at the Coachella festival.
I pay tribute to our sisters in Northern Ireland and in Ireland, where, in May 2018, they finally won the right to an abortion after their campaign to repeal the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution, and to our sisters in Uruguay, who—also in May—finally saw the first conviction for femicide. I pay tribute to Jenny Saville, who smashed records for women artists in selling their wares at Sotheby’s. In June, our sisters in Spain made history when the first female-led Cabinet was appointed. Just a few decades ago Spain had no women Ministers at all, so that is a massive shift.
I pay tribute to our sisters who are now on the committee that monitors the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, standing up for disabled women around the world. I pay tribute to Jacinda Ardern, the first elected woman leader to take maternity leave in office, and the second ever to give birth while in office. I pay tribute to our sisters in Argentina, who in June marched with the Green Tide movement for their own abortion rights. I pay tribute to our sisters who last summer, in Iran, finally had the opportunity to watch sport in a stadium alongside men, and to our sisters in Saudi Arabia who are finally allowed to drive.
In September, we stood with the inspirational Dr Christine Blasey Ford as she stood up against Brett Kavanaugh. In the same month Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, having been ignored by the Nobel prize system, finally won $3 million for her breakthrough achievements in physics, and chose to donate it to support those who are under-represented in physics. In October Nadia Murad won the Nobel peace prize, Donna Strickland won the Nobel prize for physics—she was only the third woman to do so—and Frances H. Arnold won the Nobel prize for chemistry; she was only the fifth ever to receive it. Sahle-Work Zewde was elected the first female President of Ethiopia. In November, those amazing women of America—including some who are here with us today—stood for election. We were rooting for you, and we will continue to root for you: we stand with you.
In December, Charlotte Prodger won the Turner prize, and Imelda Cortez, a rape victim who had been charged with attempted murder in El Salvador after giving birth to her abuser’s baby, was finally freed from prison. Our Palestinian and Jewish sisters organised a strike to voice their outrage at the murder of Yara Ayoub and Sylvia Tsegai, mobilising to break the silence and impunity for the murder of women.
However, last year we also saw our sisters in Ethiopia attacked. We saw Marielle Franco murdered in Brazil. We worked “for free” from 10 November. A teenage girl’s knickers were described to jurors in evidence during a rape trial. We saw a similar case involving Ulster rugby players. We saw Google employees having to stage a walkout because of sexual harassment. We saw a fall in convictions for rape and sexual assault; and yes, we still see inequalities in our society. We saw our sisters in South Africa having to take to the streets to protest against the increase in gender-based violence.
We also saw that the rates of female genital mutilation are going down in Africa but are still prevalent, and this year already we have had to speak up for Rahaf Mohammed, the teenager from Saudi Arabia who fled to Indonesia to escape her family, for the women of the south Indian state of Kerala who have come together to protest women of menstruating age being banned from entering Hindu temples, for our sisters in Sierra Leone who declared a national emergency over the sexual and gender-based violence, and for the cyclist who was stopped in a race because she was going as fast as the men. This is the world we still live in.
We have seen time and again the challenges our sisters fight, whether our sisters in Northern Ireland still denied their basic right to control over their body or our sisters facing the problems of climate change. To every one of those sisters out there I say, “We are with you.” To every one of those sisters I say, “You will find a voice here in the United Kingdom Parliament.” To every one of those sisters I say, “Liberté, Egalité, Sororité.”
I am pleased to be able to contribute to this debate ahead of International Women’s Day tomorrow, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing it.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “Balance for Better”, which is a call to action for driving gender balance across the world. For women to reach their full potential we need to address the issues that are holding women back, and very important among them is female genital mutilation. We all know that all too often the first message a girl receives about her body is that it is imperfect—too fat or too thin, too dark or too pale—but for some girls the message is that in order to be accepted by the wider community their bodies must be cut, altered and even reshaped by female genital mutilation.
In many communities, FGM is seen as a rite of passage, but it can result in serious health complications including infections, chronic pain and infertility, and it can even lead to fatalities. FGM is internationally recognised as a human rights violation, yet some 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM. If current rates persist, around 68 million more will be cut by 2030.
Where it is practised, FGM is supported, usually without question, by both men and women, yet the reasons for the practice are often rooted in gender inequality. In some communities it is carried out to control women’s and girls’ sexuality. It is sometimes a prerequisite for marriage and is closely linked to child marriage.
FGM is practised in countries around the world: in 29 African countries, in Asia, in the middle east, in eastern Europe and in South America. In many western countries, including the UK, FGM is practised among diaspora populations from areas where the practice is commonplace. Some 5,391 new cases of FGM were reported in the UK in 2016-17, but it is well known that there has been only one successful prosecution for FGM in this country.
It was my pleasure yesterday to meet representatives from the Freedom Charity at an event organised by the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan). The Freedom Charity does vital work in engaging with schools in the UK to raise awareness of, and help combat, FGM, forced marriages and other crimes against children.
Although some associate FGM with religious practices, no religion promotes or condones FGM and many religious leaders have denounced it. FGM is a cultural rather than a religious practice, and now women and girls who have suffered FGM are speaking out.
Kadiga from Ethiopia said:
“I will never subject my child to FGM if she happens to be a girl, and I will teach her the consequences of the practice early on.”
Meaza, 15 years old, said:
“In my village there is one girl who is younger than I am who has not been cut because I discussed the issue with her parents. I told them how much the operation had hurt me, how it had traumatised me and made me not trust my own parents. They decided they did not want this to happen to their daughter.”
Zainab, who was infibulated at the age of eight, said:
“My two sisters, myself and our mother went to visit our family back home. I assumed we were going for a holiday. A bit later they told us we were going to be infibulated. The day before our operation was due to take place, another girl was infibulated and she died because of the operation. We were so scared and didn’t want to suffer the same fate. But our parents told us it was an obligation, so we went. We fought back, we really thought we were going to die because of the pain. You have one woman holding your mouth so you won’t scream, two holding your chest and the other two holding your legs. After we were infibulated, we had rope tied across our legs so it was like we had to learn to walk again. We had to try to go to the toilet. If you couldn’t pass water in the next 10 days something was wrong. We were lucky, I suppose. We gradually recovered and didn’t die like the other girl. But the memory and the pain never really go away.”
To eradicate FGM, co-ordinated and systematic efforts are needed, and they must engage whole communities and focus on human rights and gender equality. They must also address the sexual and reproductive health needs of women and girls who suffer from its consequences. The United Nations Population Fund, jointly with UNICEF, leads the largest global programme to accelerate the abandonment of FGM. The programme currently focuses on 17 African countries and also supports regional and global initiatives. The law provides little protection, however. Many of the countries where FGM is prevalent have laws against the practice, but the enforcement of those laws is the problem, with much of the activity around FGM being secretive and concealed. On International Women’s Day, let us remember the girls and women around the world who have been or may become victims of this barbaric practice, and let us wipe it out once and for all.
It is an honour to be the penultimate Back-Bench speaker in this debate. We have heard many powerful contributions, including those dealing with discrimination leading to violence against women. I have experienced great solidarity on the issue of fighting discrimination in the past year and a half since I became a Member of Parliament, and if that solidarity continues, I really believe that we can make progress, particularly on the very dark side of discrimination.
Today I want to focus on something slightly closer to home—namely, my own experience as I was growing up. As I grew up in the 1970s, I looked forward to a future of exciting possibilities. The world was my oyster. I could follow my passions, study, develop my skills, build my career and have a family. It never occurred to me that my career options could be limited because I was a woman, that I would not automatically attain the same level of responsibility, pay and influence that my male counterparts would, that I might have to sacrifice my career aspirations when we started a family because I earned less than my husband, that there was an automatic assumption that I would take on the lion’s share of looking after our young children, or that in 2019 I would still have to speak out in this House against the ongoing discrimination and undervaluing of women in the UK. But here I am, and because I have a voice in Parliament, I am using it today to remind everybody that we must continue our efforts to fight discrimination—particularly its darker side—and to create a true gender balance in every sector of our society.
In the world of business, recent research from the Chartered Management Institute shows that, despite long-standing efforts to shift deeply entrenched attitudes, systems and practices, as many as 85% of women and 80% of men say they have seen discriminatory behaviour in a professional environment. The same research found that 75% of senior managers believe their peers are not actively and visibly promoting gender initiatives.
Although the gender pay gap has narrowed, women in this country are still being paid less than men. This has many damaging consequences. When a couple choose to have a child, they decide which parent will take time out to raise that child. They will weigh up what makes the most sense financially. In most cases, the partner on lower pay will, at least initially, reduce their working hours and take the hit to their career. In the majority of cases, the partner who stays at home is the woman.
Once a woman exits her career, for whatever reason—be it to start a family or to care for a family member—her promotion prospects are likely to diminish. Re-entering the world of work can be very challenging, especially if a person wants to do it on their own terms by job sharing, working part time, working flexibly or working from home. Those who return to work may have to start on lower pay, sacrificing years of valuable experience. They may be overlooked for promotion, and they are often seen as not being committed enough.
Gender generalisation can be dangerous, but most of us have seen that our cultural conditioning has promoted competitiveness and risk-taking—qualities that are more associated with male attitudes than with female ones—in the workplace over co-operation and empathy. Women bring a different approach to business and organisations. There is sound evidence that a company’s long-term profitability rises with a more gender-balanced management. Collectively, we are failing ourselves and the generations that are to come by perpetuating discrimination, even if it is subtle. Our economy is losing out, as we all are.
The vision of a truly liberal society is that everybody can be themselves and thrive. We must not hold women back. I want every woman in our society to feel as though she can realise her full potential, and we are not there yet. As I said at the very beginning, I hope very much that the solidarity that we have created in this place—that includes men as well as women—means that we do more and do better. I hope that by next year, rather than just talking the talk we will be walking the walk, and that we will see progress, particularly against the dark side of discrimination where women face violence. Let us do better than we have done in previous years.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I am thankful to be able to make a contribution. I was raised by a wonderfully strong and loving mother, and I married an equally strong wife. I also have two granddaughters, and I am conscious that my mother’s strength of character and my wife’s compassion will make them very successful in their lives to come.
My mother is 87 years of age and 4 foot 10, and she laboured beside my 6-foot father, stride for stride, all their lives. She was determined not by her tiny frame, but by her heart of a lion. No task was ever too much for mum, and I like to think that some of her grit and determination has come through to me and the rest of the family. My parliamentary aide often uses a wee statement that reminds me of a comment by Margaret Thatcher: “If you want something talked about, let a man do it, but if you want something done, give it to a woman.” I am ever mindful of the fact that there are exceptions to that, and I hope that I am one.
Today, I want to mention three people of Ulster extraction who played a big role in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and across the world. The first is Cecil Frances Humphreys, a famous hymn writer. In the 1840s she wrote many compositions that appeared in the Church of Ireland hymnals. She married William Alexander, who became the Bishop of Derry and the Archbishop of Armagh. Many of her hymns are still important to us. “All Things Bright and Beautiful”, “There Is a Green Hill Far Away” and “Once in Royal David’s City”, to mention just three, remain popular across the world.
Isabella Tod was born in Edinburgh, but she spent most of her life in Belfast. She became Ulster’s pre-eminent advocate of votes for women and women’s education. She campaigned for changes in the law that resulted in the Married Women’s Property Act 1882. She secured the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, and she championed the right of women to higher education. She also persuaded the Queen’s University of Ireland to allow girls to take examinations and be awarded certificates. What a wonderful legacy she has left behind.
Sarah Leech, the daughter of a linen weaver, was born in Raphoe, in County Donegal, into the Ulster Scots tradition. Her staunch Unionism was evidenced by her poems. Sarah’s weaver poetry is genuinely impressive, and I greatly appreciate her impact on Ulster Scots poetry even to this generation and beyond.
I read a tremendous article on family life among the Ulster Scots settlers in America—it is nice to have a lady from the United States with us in the Gallery—that praised the role of women. That is something that my wife would agree with. Among those settlers, men were the warriors and women were the workers.
For generations those men had to be warriors in the old countries of Scotland, England and Ireland, and the pattern did not change just because they migrated to America. In any society where the men go off to war, the women do much more labour at home. That was true for those Ulster Scots, too. In those families, the women laboured in the fields right beside their husbands—the women of Ulster and this United Kingdom remain the same.
I join everyone who has spoken in this debate in celebrating the achievements of women who work hard in their occupation, raise their family, reach the top of their field—as everyone who has spoken in this debate has done—and raise the next generation to stop seeing gender and simply judge on ability.
It is a huge pleasure to follow such an esteemed list of female parliamentarians and, indeed, our esteemed colleague from Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
The comments of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), who is not in her place, were incredibly powerful. We could have heard a penny drop in the Chamber as she read out the names of the women who have died as a result of domestic violence and abuse in the past year. I am proud that in Scotland the SNP Government have brought in world-leading domestic abuse legislation, but we still face a huge challenge.
Today is World Book Day, and one of my favourite books I have read recently is “Eve Was Shamed” by Helena Kennedy, who sits in the other place. She talks about structural inequalities in the justice system, which we must continue to focus on across all jurisdictions in the UK.
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is “Balance for Better,” and it is a great opportunity to talk about those structural inequalities for women, as well as intersectionality and discrimination against women from black and ethnic minority communities, from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, who are disabled or from any minority group.
I stress at the outset that it is essential to understand that women’s rights are not to be achieved at the cost of men. There is a huge role for men to play—husbands, fathers, sons, brothers and friends. I hasten to add that my own brother is an ardent feminist. He and I were brought up by a single mother, and he has a female partner and a female daughter, so he has been surrounded by women his whole life.
One of the things we have talked about recently—I raised it earlier at Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions—is the scourge of online media, particularly social media and gaming. Much has been said about the abuse that female parliamentarians particularly receive, and about the creep of abuse online.
The streaming of the game “Rape Day,” which was recently released by developer Desk Plant, has, thank goodness, been stopped on the Steam platform. I find it incredible that someone would sit behind a computer and create a game based on verbally harassing, killing and raping women, with content including violence, sexual assault, non-consensual sex, obscene language, necrophilia and incest. In any world, why would anyone play that game?
There has been a huge outcry, including from Shona Robison, my colleague in the Scottish Parliament, who raised it at First Minister’s questions today. The First Minister herself called it out. A game of this nature has no place in our society, and I am glad it has been pulled but, at a time when one in five women will experience sexual violence in their life and young teens are learning about sex from online porn, I question the morals of those behind the game.
A few weeks ago, the NSPCC published a report highlighting its research on social media and online harm, and I am sure the results will shock everyone in the Chamber and parents at home. Technology-facilitated grooming has become a major challenge. In 2017-18, across the UK, there were more than 3,500 police-recorded offences of sexual communication with a child. In England and Wales, 70% of offences, where the data was recorded, took place on Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram. We must do everything possible to challenge those online platforms to stop the scourge of online harm and abuse.
An average of one child per primary school class has been sent or shown a naked or semi-naked image online by an adult, and more than one in seven children aged 11 to 18 has been asked to send self-generated images and sexual messages. Terrifyingly, the Home Office says that an estimated 80,000 adults in the UK pose a sexual threat to children online. I am sure that is shocking for all of us.
The Scottish Government have implemented a huge number of progressive and world-leading policies to better support women and young people across Scotland. We have introduced legislation that makes Scotland the only part of the UK with requirements for gender parity on public boards. The Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Bill was recently passed in our Parliament and it sets an objective for listed public authorities that 50% of the non-executive members of their boards should be women. I hope the Minister will take that into consideration. I know that her Government have done a significant amount, particularly on getting companies with more than 250 employees to register their gender pay gap, but more must be done. We must look at the position in companies with fewer than 250 employees, because some of the worst discrimination often lies in those companies.
The Minister will know that as soon as Nicola Sturgeon became Scotland’s First Minister she had a Cabinet with a 50:50 gender balance—one of only three in the world. Many Members have spoken of pioneering women, and I want to pay tribute to my colleagues in the constituency, Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, and Angela Constance MSP, who was until recently the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning. Both women have represented West Lothian constituencies and both have been in the Cabinet. The Livingston constituency has fielded female candidates in the past six elections, including my mother in 2010.
I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) say that International Women’s Day was started 110 years ago, by women who were garment workers. My grandmother was a garment worker during the second world war. She met my grandfather when working for Rolls-Royce. When she returned to work after marrying, she was told that her job was a job for men and that she should not be doing it, and she was given her books—in essence, she was dismissed. Married women were not eligible for employment of this sort—she was told that it was “men’s work”. It took her until she was in her 80s to tell my mother and I:
“And the three men they kept on to do my job weren’t worth a tenth of me.”
It has taken four generations of women in my family to get to a position of what could be called “power and influence”, but we got there. In the words of Angela Davis:
“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”
It is great to have this International Women’s Day debate today, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) for leading on the tabling of the motion. I also thank the Select Committee chaired by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for its work. As I have said publicly, she does an amazing job on the Committee; it is just a disappointment that the Prime Minister often does not take on board its recommendations. This debate began about two hours later than we expected. I know that that is because of the business of the House, but if the Government had secured the time and made this Government business, the debate could have had protected time. The situation is a little disappointing.
I wish to welcome our international guest Stacey Abrams. It was not so long ago that I was walking the long, long streets of Atlanta with a friend of mine, Gary, trying to get the first black woman elected as Governor of Georgia. I am sure that her next election will be very successful. I saw some voting practices in the United States that truly shocked me. There were no practical reasons for the long four-hour queues, but there were political reasons for them. That is why I support Stacey’s fight for free and fair elections, and the fairfight.com campaign.
As we have heard many times, in some amazing contributions from Members from all parts of the House, the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “Balance for Better”, with the vital aim of building a gender-balanced world. I do not mind what works or how it works, just as long as it works for all women and as long as we remove the structural barriers. After all, gender stereotypes have a detrimental effect on men as well as women, as we see in the mental health problems among men and the growth in the number of male suicides. If we could eliminate the gender stereotyping, we would have a better society for all.
We need to call out the barriers to progress. Although it has been nice to agree with Members from all parties, we have to call out the structural barriers, which means we have to call out the burden the Government have placed on women. Some 87% of cuts have fallen on women’s shoulders. Cuts have consequences. We have heard today about knife crime and the NHS. When funding for all these vital services is cut, it has devastating consequences, especially for women.
It is no secret in my office that I like to go home and watch “Neighbours”—[Interruption.] “Bless you,” I hear from a sedentary position—I know! There was quite a storyline this week when the well-loved character Sonya, played by Eve Morey, died of ovarian cancer. That made me look at the figures on how NHS cuts affect women. Twelve women a day die from ovarian cancer. We need more investment in things like the NHS to get better outcomes for women.
The next Labour Government will have a different approach and go much further than this Government in tacking the structural barriers in society. We will put forward a radical and progressive agenda to empower women. I think the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) agreed with Labour’s policy that I announced at our conference. Channelling the great philosopher Dolly Parton, I announced that we would introduce rights to flexible working from day one of employment.
Under our plans, no women will be shut out of the workplace. It is about bringing the workplace into the 21st century. It is not about working longer hours; it is about working hours to suit our complicated lives. The United Nations reported that the disadvantages facing women and girls are a major source of inequality and one of the greatest barriers to the progress of human development. In around 90 countries, women spent roughly three times as many hours in unpaid domestic and care work as men, which is why the flexible working policy that I announced at the Labour party’s conference is so important.
The gender pay gap is growing in hundreds of companies, which is worrying. Combined with the fact that companies have reported mathematically impossible data and that there are no sanctions for that, it kind of makes a mockery of the system and calls into question the Government’s commitment. After all, even the Ministry of Justice missed the deadline. Labour will go further by making it mandatory for large companies to conduct audits, alongside action plans. Those with good gender practices will receive Government certification, while those that fail to take action will face fines. We will not just monitor the pay gap but close it.
It is time to stop paying lip service to women and time that we value women and their contribution to society, whether it be at work or in the home. Part of that valuing is acknowledging the changes from menstruating to menopause. Not all women will have these issues, but when they do, it should be acknowledged and accommodated. So, on period poverty we will go further. Labour has pledged to provide free sanitary products in schools, colleges and food banks, and we are currently working with the GMB trade union on a menopause workplace policy and a WASPI women policy.
When it comes to harassment at work, I am afraid the Government have again failed to deliver progress to prevent another Presidents Club scandal from happening. By contrast, Labour has pledged to reinstate section 40 of the Equality Act to protect employees from third party harassment, from day one.
As we have heard, one in three women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate-partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. The World Health Organisation states that violence against women is a major health problem. We must tackle it with great urgency. I hope the domestic violence Bill that the Minister has announced will go further than the draft Bill currently does.
The way to advance gender equality is not by having one person at the top, but by removing the structural barriers so that many women and under-represented groups can make it to the top. That is why a Labour Government will remove the career ladder that has held so many women and people of colour back for too long, and we will replace it with a career escalator, so that the journey to success and the top will be smoother and unhindered. The UN found that the structural barriers that act as obstacles to women’s participation include discriminatory laws and institutions, lack of contacts and resources, lower levels of education, gender stereotypes, and the disproportionate effect of poverty on women.
This year marks the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919. The Act enabled women to become barristers, solicitors, jurors and magistrates. It also enabled them to enter professions such as accountancy. One would have thought that our progress would be much faster than it is now.
As I come to the end of my contribution, I wish to mention our international responsibility. Just this week, with representatives from Unite, I met Thabitha, who, like me, represents the Opposition party. We have shared beliefs in justice, equality and democracy—we even share a sense of humour. Thabitha’s battle brought me to tears. On 22 November last year, she and her colleagues were beaten by police in the Parliament for refusing to stand for the President. Footage of this horrific act can still be seen online.
I asked Thabitha where she gets her strength from, and she told me that she wants her dignity back. She said that she wants to see more women in Parliament and that she does not want the next generation to suffer. She also said that she does not want the next generation of women to be raped. She is an inspiration and exactly the kind of strong woman that we should be celebrating on International Women’s Day, but her story shows just how far we still have to go for the emancipation of women across the world.
In delivering Labour’s policy, we will allow all women to progress. We will reward good work and good workplace practices and help those businesses to grow. We will ensure that strong workplace protections are in place and that there is access to justice. On International Women’s Day 2019, as we “Balance for Better”, I say let us remove the structural barriers, let is build for an escalator and a lift to success, let us understand the policies and outcomes, cuts and consequences, and let us value women and girls.
May I start by saying what an honour it is to be part of this debate on such an important day in our national and international calendar? I thank and pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) who, as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, very much stands by what she addressed us on, namely speaking truth to power. I note the fact that she is the 265th of 491 women ever to have been Members of Parliament. The fact that we have not yet managed to fill a five-year term with female MPs does show us the scale of what we have to climb before we get true equality in this place.
I thank every Member, both female and male, who has attended the debate and contributed today. International Women’s Day is primarily a day of celebration. We have certainly heard speeches today that offer great hope and optimism for the future and that have demonstrated that, in many areas, we are making real progress towards a more equal society. At the same time, we have heard appalling details of inequality from a number of speakers and clear evidence of the prejudices that women and girls still face.
We heard what I consider to be one of the most important events in the parliamentary calendar, which was the reading by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) of the names of the women who have been killed by men since the last International Women’s Day. Their names have been read out. They are in the parliamentary records, and they are remembered.
I am pleased also that colleagues raised the issue of the domestic abuse Bill. This is a landmark piece of legislation and, of course, is accompanied by a raft of non-legislative measures. As if we had not already heard reason enough from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley for this Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) cited a particularly concerning case of coercive behaviour—a relatively new offence that we introduced in 2015, and I will of course look into that.
Yesterday, we launched an updated version of the violence against women and girls strategy because, sadly, violence against women and girls happens in the home, in the workplace and on the streets, and this strategy will implement a review of the criminal justice response to rape and serious sexual violence. Having visited several rape centres recently, I am concerned—as are others in the Chamber—about the drop-off between reporting and action to bring perpetrators to justice, so I hope this review will get the answers we require.
The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) rightly raised the matter of FGM and so-called honour-based violence. We have secured the first conviction for FGM only recently—not for want of trying by many police forces and those who support victims. In addition, a great deal has been going on over the last few years, including forced marriage protection orders, anonymity for victims and mandatory reporting duties for FGM survivors. Indeed, at this very moment in time there is an event at No. 10 to discuss what more we can do to tackle FGM and forced marriage.
Does the Minister agree that something that has not been mentioned an awful lot in this debate is the responsibility of the media and victim-blaming? We hear far too much about violent men who “just snapped” and innocent women who have been killed or injured not taking enough responsibility for their own safety. That has to stop and the narrative has to change.
I very much hope that the hon. Lady will be making those points to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has been appointed to look into the domestic abuse Bill.
Several colleagues, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening), my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) and the first ever female MP for Plaid Cymru, the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), mentioned the role of social media and tech including games. We are due to publish our online harms White Paper very soon. Hon. Members may also be interested to know that I have commissioned research into the effect of pornography on attitudes towards women and girls; there is a lot that we need to look into there. We have also initiated projects tackling child sexual exploitation across the world, including WeProtect.
I am afraid that I am going to have to continue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) continued her campaign to encourage women who enjoy science, technology, engineering and maths, and I have to say that her mum sounds as persuasive as she is.
Many colleagues drew on the experiences of the last year’s gender pay gap reports. Of course, this year’s reporting deadlines are approaching: 30 March for public sector employers, and 4 April for private and third sector employers. Please meet the deadline. I am delighted that 100% of employers who should report did report last year, and we expect that level to be maintained; it is the law. I am also pleased that around 48% of employers have published action plans to tackle their pay gaps. Reporting is the first step, but sorting it out is the second step that we demand.
We are working to normalise flexible working. We have launched a £1.5 million campaign to promote shared parental leave, and we have invested more than £5 million in increasing opportunities and support for people who have taken time out of the labour market for caring responsibilities.
Financial independence is absolutely key for women, and I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke mentioned the difficulty that women entrepreneurs face when obtaining loans and finance. I hope that the Rose review, which will be published tomorrow, provides her Committee with much evidence to look at. This week we have announced the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy consultation on non-disclosure agreements because of the concerns that she and her Committee have raised about the use of such agreements.
Many colleagues understandably raised the issues of political representation, including my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group for women in Parliament. She reminded us of the centenary celebrations last year, which were enjoyed by many thousands of people across the country. She also set out the challenges facing female candidates and MPs across political parties. My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent reminded the House that the first woman MP ever to take her seat here and the first ever woman Prime Minister were Conservative women. My challenge to Labour Members is: next time trust a woman to lead your party. I wonder if they will take me up on that challenge.
Many colleagues mentioned international work. We are doing an enormous amount of work through DFID to help women and girls around the world.
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Balance for Better”, and I want to highlight some of the ways in which a better gender balance is becoming a reality. Female employment is at a record high. The gender pay gap is at a record low. There are now 1.2 million women-led businesses across the country. We have higher percentages of women on boards than ever before. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Livingston set out what Scotland is doing as well.
These are just some of our excellent achievements in recent times that deserve to be celebrated, but there is much more to do across every aspect of public life. That includes, interestingly, the role of female statues. Last year, the Prime Minister unveiled the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square—a fantastic celebration and achievement. One new female statue has been added to London in recent days. I commend it to everyone who has time when they are in and around St Paul’s cathedral—it is the statue “Fearless Girl”. She resembles every little girl I have ever seen who looks defiant and determined to get her way. My encouragement to everyone across the House is this: be fearless this International Women’s Day.
I thank all Members who have taken part in this excellent debate. It is right that we remember Nancy Astor—an extraordinary woman who had the courage to be the first woman to sit on these green Benches. The unacceptable abuse that too many women parliamentarians face today means that courage is a necessity for all of us who are elected to public life. To women around the country, whether they are councillors, mayors, police commissioners or Members of Parliament, I say, “Courage calls to courage everywhere”, and happy International Women’s Day tomorrow, which is also my youngest son’s 17th birthday.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered International Women’s Day.
I have to inform the House of corrections to the results of some of yesterday’s deferred Divisions. In each case, there was one power Aye vote than previously announced. On the motion relating to electricity, the Ayes were 301 and the Noes were 44; on the motion relating to gas, the Ayes were 299 and the Noes were 44; on the motion relating to food, the Ayes were 302 and the Noes were 44; on the motion relating to electronic communications, the Ayes were 300 and the Noes were 257; and on the motion relating to road traffic, the Ayes were 300 and the Noes were 251.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Because there was so little time at the end of the previous debate, the Minister did not have a chance to pay tribute to the work done by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is funded by the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. It hosted the great conference for women here in November, it recently hosted another fabulous conference on political leadership for women in Malaysia, and it will continue to do that work.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Minister did not have time to take my intervention, but I simply wanted to put on record the massive contribution of the International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014, which I had the honour of introducing with my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening).