Our Time: The Mayor of London’s drive to beat gender inequality

Labour Party

Some forms of gender inequality are unambiguous, easy to define, easy to spot and, in theory at least, should be easy to rectify. However, not all forms of discrimination are obvious.

Women in the workplace can face discrimination in ways they may even find hard to define. It’s never justified but can happen because the behavior pattern is never challenged, for whatever reason.

A new initiative, Our Time, launched by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan seeks to address the problem of the lack of women leaders in the city. The programe will provide formal, structured coaching and support for future women leaders.

The scheme, which launched on Monday 14 May, will see women paired with workplace champions, senior male and female colleagues who will support them in their ambition to access and build professional networks. The mentors will help them to pursue leadership opportunities and provide them with invaluable contacts as well as ensuring the chosen women are provided with the necessary training they need to move into senior leadership positions.

To support the initiative the Mayor of London’s office produced a powerful and evocative film which really is required viewing if you are someone who wants to get a better understanding of the issue of gender inequality.

It depicts a busy tube station and a male TFL worker standing at the bottom of both a lengthy staircase and escalator. The male commuters are told they are free to use the escalator, but the women are only permitted to use the staircase. The scene cuts to hoards of men stepping on the escalator to complete their journey to the top in relative comfort. The women, meanwhile, trek up the enormous staircase some carrying bags others struggling with buggies.

Its message is clever and powerful. And the additional information throughout is worth noting:

-The gender pay gap in London is the largest for all parts of the country.
-A FTSE CEO is more likely to be called John than to be a woman.
-Maternal employment is 8% lower in London than for the rest of the country.
-Almost three-quarters of London council leaders are male.

The pace of equality in the workplace is too slow. In a city as diverse and in so many ways as progressive as London it’s poor to note that it also has a significant problem with equality.

A formal scheme such as Our Time is a pro active way to challenge this.

And its modelled-on research which shows women with a formal champion in the workplace are significantly more likely to negotiate for a pay rise and report feeling satisfied with their rate of professional advancement.

I am excited about this campaign which is a tangible effort to redress the imbalance on inequality and goes beyond merely paying lip service to the problem.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

The Scottish Labour Party has elected a new leader, Jim Murphy. The Guardian editorial said he was the most experienced and high profile candidate, this is right but he will also be excellent in the role and will be able to meet any challenges head on.

It is true, he will be very good for Scottish Labour, of that there is no doubt, but as the Guardian editorial pointed out, he also has the best chance of both providing a united front from within the party and galvanising the Labour support across Scotland. Murphy’s role couldn’t begin at a more important period than now, just months away from a general election and I wish him very best wishes in his new role.

You can read the Guardian’s editorial here.

In contrast, Parliamentary chaos threatens to ensue in Sweden following the announcement of a snap general election. The last election in Sweden was just three months ago but the Prime Minister has called another one after failing to get the budget passed in the current government.

Worryingly, the dominance of the far right Swedish Democrats is a distinct possibility. The first exit polls in Sweden revealed that the far-right party was expected to end up being the third largest in the Swedish Parliament.

To give you an idea of what they are about, they refuse to engage or have dialogue with, anyone who doesn’t share their view that immigration needs to be slashed. Furthermore, the party was also founded as a white supremacist group in 1988.

The Guardian had an interesting analysis of the results and explored the possibility of the rise of this far-right group. You can read the analysis in full here.

Meanwhile Iceland’s foreign minister made a powerful call for world leaders to open their hearts to gender equality. The country’s foreign minister, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson said other countries can learn lessons following Iceland’s successful work on combatting sexism. The country’s success is most evident in its first place ranking in a recent global report on gender equality.

Sveinsson’s comments, calling for world leaders to take gender equality more seriously, come ahead of a UN conference he is preparing to host in January.

You can read more on Sveinsson’s comments here.

My European Parliament Speech on Prostitution and Gender Equality

Labour Party

My report on prostitution and sexual exploitation takes its starting point in the Directives on victims of violence (2012) and in trafficking (2011) which clearly couples trafficking and prostitution.

My report is trying to change the perspective on prostitution from the supply to the demand side and therefore endorses the “Nordic” model to criminalise the client rather than the prostitute, who should have all adequate help and not be condemned and stigmatised when often suffering from trauma, drug and alcohol addiction and a higher mortality rate than women in general. Programmes to help women to escape prostitution should be developed. Prostitution should more be seen as a form of violence and as such be an obstacle to equality between women and men. The economic crisis in some countries has also forced women into entering prostitution which shows that the economic inequality is important.

Laws on prostitution vary across the European Union. In the UK prostitution is not illegal but soliciting, running a brothel, pimping and associated activities are. In Holland a bill in 2000 lifted the ban on brothels with the aim of reducing prostitution and controlling and regulating it by introducing a municipal licensing system. The Dutch government carried out two evaluations on the impacts in 2002 and in2007. In the 2007 evaluation it was clear that 95% of the prostitutes worked without employment contracts, were not entitled to social service benefits, had no exit programmes, and did not pay tax.  Furthermore work permits for prostitutes were not accepted and thereby the prostitutes had to be referred to the underground market. According to a 2006 study the majority of the female prostitutes are migrants, mainly from Eastern Europe and the sex business represents 5% of the GDP namely around 600 million Euros yearly. According to the national Rapporteur on Human Trafficking there has always been a clear relationship between human trafficking in the Netherlands and 60% -70% of the women are forced by criminal groups to be prostitutes.

In Germany a similar approach to that in Holland is in place and a study carried out by the Federal Ministry found that 92% of the women working as prostitutes had suffered sexual harassment and Germany is considered one of major destination for victims of human trafficking and the Anti -Trafficking Directive 2011/36/EU has passed by Bundestag but not Bundesrat.  In Der Spiegel a debate has been conducted this last year where it has become clear how young poor women from Romania and Bulgaria are treated as sex slaves for flat rate services to German men.

On the other hand, buying sexual services is a criminal offence in Sweden – the Nordic Model. France has just passed a law in the National Assembly in line with the Nordic Model.

My report views this as a way forward for the European Union.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

Car-making giant Ford this week added their voice to the pro-EU campaign, with Steve Odell, who runs the firm’s European arm, arguing that by leaving Europe the UK would be “cutting off its nose to spite its face”. He pointed out how frustrating it would be to try and trade with the EU from outside, saying he would “strongly advise against leaving the EU for business purposes, and for employment purposes in the UK”.

The company, which currently provides 15,000 British jobs, joins Honda, who earlier this month argued “anything that weakens our ability to trade with the [EU] region would be detrimental to UK manufacturing”. And in November Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn said his company would reconsider its “strategy and investments for the future” if Britain withdraws. The UK car industry, which has expanded massively over the last ten years, remains reliant on foreign – and especially European – exportation, with 40% of the 1.5 billion cars made here going to EU countries.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the industry’s trade association, this week announced they would be compiling a report, expected to be published in spring, which will underline an industry-wide commitment to Europe. The study will aim to debunk pre-European Election myths that the EU is bad for business, pointing out how vital membership is to the continuing growth of the sector.

The views of Ford and other companies go directly against the current attitude of the British government. George Osborne this week complained that “Europe accounts for just over 7% of the world’s population, 25% of its economy, and 50% of global social welfare spending. We can’t go on like this”. The numbers were intended to underline the supposed wastefulness of the EU, yet they in fact illustrate a different point: that by working together European countries are able to punch significantly above their weight – making up a quarter of the global economy despite having less than a tenth of the global population.

Osborne, in his attempts to appease his own backbenchers, may try to frame the debate as British belt-tightening Vs EU profligacy. But in reality, as the views of Ford and others in the motor industry show, he is setting himself and his party at odds with the interests of British manufacturing and the international business consensus.

This week also saw singer Beyonce speak out about what she calls “the myth about gender equality”. Writing a short essay as part of The Shriver Report – an annual investigation into gender equality in America – the R’n’B singer wrote that “Women make up half of the US workforce, but the average working woman earns only 77% of what the average working man makes…Equality will be achieved when men and women are granted equal pay and equal respect”.

Beyonce may not fit with some people’s idea of a ‘feminist’ – and, indeed, she distances herself from the term – yet she is spot on in her diagnosis. The belief we have already reached parity between men and women undermines efforts to bring about genuine equality, and creates complacency. It has become too easy for those on the political right to end the debate by asserting that it is already won. We need more people in the public eye to follow Beyonce’s lead and speak out.

Women on Boards: Britain Must Lead Not Follow the Rest of Europe

Labour Party

It was announced on Tuesday that Burberry Chief Executive Angela Ahrendts would be leaving the company. Ahrendts’ move to Apple reduces the number of women heading up FTSE 100 companies to just two – Imperial Tobacco’s Alison Cooper and easyJet’s Carolyn McCall. It illustrates that, while the glass ceiling may be (slowly) rising, it is not going away. The very top of business is still uniformly male.

Ahrendts’ departure was timely, coming on the same day as European Parliament committees voted in favour of draft legislation requiring 40% representation for women among non-executive board members. The proposals, once enshrined in law, would require company boards to be two fifths female by 2020. A comprehensive 40 of the 51 committee members voted in favour of the plans, meaning that they can now go to the European Parliament for its next full session in November – and after that on to the Council of Ministers (the 28 Member States’ respective governments).

The UK’s existing self-regulatory measures have brought about incremental improvements when it comes to the number of women on boards. Last week figures showed that FTSE 100 non-exec directors are now 19% female, suggesting we are likely to hit Lord Davies’s 25% target by 2015. We are moving in the right direction.

However, our record on the issue remains distinctly average compared to other Member States. France, Holland and Italy have all had dramatic rises following the introduction of quotas in 2010, with France’s level of female representation increasing from 12.4% to 26.8%. The proportion of women on British boards, by comparison, is pretty much in line with Europe-wide figures – no better, no worse.

London, Europe’s main financial centre and home to some of the world’s largest companies, should be leading the way on this issue. Diversity at the top of businesses brings better leadership and a more rounded, innovative approach. I hope that the 40% target voted through yesterday will ultimately pass into EU Law, and that it will encourage UK businesses to look at competitors on the continent and try harder to set the pace. 60% of British graduates are now female; we need this to be better reflected in the people doing the top jobs.

Setting out a 2020 EU target for the proportion of women on boards would not mean telling individual Member States exactly how to go about addressing the problem; every country has a different economy and a different business ethos. Nor would it set unachievable goals for countries that are already doing well. What it would do is speed up the varying rates of progress across Member States, so that a gold standard for women on boards was reached by more quickly by more countries.

For me this is exactly what the European Parliament is there for: helping Member States to set out a shared vision for a more progressive Europe, and then working flexibly with them to help achieve it. Countries become fairer and more efficient when they work at a problem together rather than in isolation.

I hope the 40% target is formally introduced across Europe, and that its effect trickles upwards, so that if a female Chief Executive leaves a FTSE 100 company in 2020 it is less notable, from a gender equality perspective, than Ahrendts’ departure was yesterday.

International Women’s Day

Labour Party

Yesterday I was invited to speak at a conference hosted by the European Parliament to mark International Women’s Day. The panel included Conservative MEP, Marina Yannakoudakis, the CEO and founder of Mumsnet, Justine Roberts, the academic, Roberta Guerrina and Jacqueline Minor who is the new head of the Commission Representation in the UK.

mary Honeyball IWD

We discussed what role the EU has played in shaping gender equality in the last 40 years.

Leading up to the event Mumsnet ran a thread on its website to ask its members what it thought about the effects the EU had had on women and gender equality. I read the thread in preparation of the event and was struck by the feeling from those who really believed that little had been done by the EU.

Indeed Justine Roberts confirmed this sentiment during the panel debate when she said people don’t necessarily know that many gender rights are a result of EU directives. And I think that’s a fair point. We have done a huge amount of work in the area of equal pay for work, improved the area of maternity rights and worked to achieve better paternity provision so that parents can have more of a choice in how they bring up their children among many other things.

Jacqueline Minor made the point that while we have come a long way, there is still a lot of work to do citing the 20% pay gap in the UK which still exists. In the Commission there is a better gender balance in the middle echelons but the top three per cent still has a disproportionately high number of men she explained.

Meanwhile Dr Roberta Guerrina, who is the head of the politics school at the University of Surrey specialising in gender and EU politics, suggested that women in Italy are effectively on strike from having babies as a result of gender inequality at work, and the tough economic climate. The reality is, she argued, that in some southern European countries parity is so low that women are not having children hence Italy has a seriously low birth rate, one of the worst in Western Europe. In contrast Scandinavian countries have some of the highest rates, and unsurprisingly the latter countries have significantly higher levels of gender equality.

The event was a fitting way to mark International Women’s Day, and while we have much to celebrate, we must tell people what the European Union has done for women. That’s why events such as yesterday’s panel debate are important to participate in. The provide a platform, but we must also seek to encourage the media not just to write about the European Union in a negative way but to write of the success stories too.

Finally, I was disappointed to hear of a survey published by BBC Sport which found how undervalued international sportswomen feel. Not just in terms of their financial remuneration but in terms of the support they receive to help them reach full potential in comparison to the male counterparts. So much more must be done in this area.

But today, let’s celebrate International Women’s Day and the leaps we have made so far.


Women are facing a silent, pernicious crisis

Labour Party

The European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality has called for a halt to budget cuts,  particularly cuts in social expenditure that affect women more than men.

In a resolution the Committee approved a set of proposals to address the impact of the crisis on gender equality including investing in lifelong training and new jobs, public transport, and developing child care facilities.

Women have been punished twice since the start of the economic crisis, by losing their jobs and working part-time. Austerity measures and cuts in the public budget, unemployment, temporary work and low salaries affect women more than men.

The resolution’s rapporteur told the Women’s Committee that women are facing a silent, pernicious crisis which worsens their condition. Even before the crisis more women than men were affected by unemployment, precarious work, part-time work, low wages and slow careers. Today, as a result of austerity policies, they suffer a double punishment. This is an issue at the heart of political equality and employment. 

Women leaving employment or reducing their hours as a result of cuts in social security benefits and welfare infrastructure, such as education, childcare, health and care services, have further feminised poverty. Part-time employment has a long term impact, not only diminishing income, but pensions as well. Committee members believed that despite unemployment rates for men and women being comparable, the crisis affects the latter differently: working conditions for women have become considerably more insecure, their income has diminished, part-time and fixed-term jobs have grown to the detriment of more stable employment.

MEPs called on the European Commission to oppose budget cuts, especially in the public sector, to social security benefits and social welfare, education and childcare services. We also called for an action plan for better childcare, developing company and inter-company crèches. The Committee also reiterated its demand for the promotion of female entrepreneurship by facilitating women’s access to microcredits as well as for improving public transport policy to enable women to be truly mobile and to achieve a better work-life balance.

Fair representation for women on company boards

2012, Women's Rights

Here is an article I wrote for Shifting Grounds blog on 27 November 2012.

As a member of the European Parliament’s Gender Equality and Women’s Rights Committee I have worked for a number of years to increase women’s participation in decision-making. 

Gender equality is a core value of the EU, from the bloc’s founding treaty in 1957 which included the principle of equal pay for equal work, to the Charter of Fundamental Rights which recognises the right to equality between women and men in all areas, and the need for positive action.

The latest proposal to promote women’s participation in economic decision-making is a proposal from the European Commission about women on boards. It comes after years of the Commission encouraging Member States to take action, with mixed results. Currently oonly 14% of company board positions in the largest listed companies in the EU are held by women, compared to 16% in the UK.  The Commission’s proposal, which will apply only to companies with a turnover in excess of 50 million euros a year, is that the proportion should be at least 40% by 2020. Member States that take measures “of equivalent efficacy” for more balanced boards would be exempt from the new rules. Sanction for non-compliance will be the responsibility of member states.

Having more women on boards is a basic question of fairness.  Women make up half the population and 60% of graduates.  More than 70% of purchasing decisions are made by women.  Yet too often non-executive directors are recruited through an “old boys’ network” from among business and personal contacts of current board members.  The European Commission proposal sets out to have these male-dominated opaque recruitment practices replaced by transparent selection procedures and objective qualification criteria.  This is what is required to smash the glass ceiling.  Qualification and merit will still be the key criteria for a job on the board – and there are over 7,000 highly qualified women with professional experience ready to take over a board position[1]

The aim of the EU legislation is to speed up the varying rate of progress in Member States.  Across the EU women’s representation on corporate boards has increased by just 0.6% per year since 2003. However in France which introduced binding quota legislation in 2010 the number of women on boards has doubled to 22.3%.   In the UK self-regulatory measures have put us on course to reach 27% by 2015, and 37% by 2020[2], more than likely putting the UK in the category excluded by Brussels from the new provisions.

[1] European Business Schools Women on Board Initiative
[2] Cranfield School of Management Female FTSE Report

Increasing the Number of Women on Boards is Taking too Long

Labour Party

A European Commission report published today shows that limited progress towards increasing the number of women on company boards has been achieved one year after EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding called for credible self-regulatory measures.  Just one in seven board members at Europe’s top firms is a woman (13.7%). This is a slight improvement from 11.8% in 2010. However, it would still take more than 40 years to reach a significant gender balance (at least 40% of both sexes) at this rate.

Gender balance in top positions has been shown to contribute to better business performance, improved competitiveness and economic gains. For example, a report by McKinsey found that gender-balanced companies have a 56% higher operating profit compared to male-only companies. Ernst & Young looked at the 290 largest publicly-listed companies. They found that the earnings at companies with at least one woman on the board were significantly higher than in those that had no female board member.

To identify appropriate measures for addressing the persistent lack of gender diversity in boardrooms of listed companies in Europe, the Commission launched a public consultation today. The Commission is seeking views on possible action at EU level, including legislative measures, to redress the gender imbalance on company boards. The public consultation will run until 28 May 2012. Following this input, the Commission will take a decision on further action later this year.

Read the full Commission Press release here.

Girls Nurses, Boys Pilots – not any longer thanks to an inspired campaign

Labour Party

Last week I read an inspired campaign in my local paper about a group who successfully lobbied Sainsbury’s supermarket to remove sexist labelling from its children’s dressing up clothes. The clothes reinforced the typical gender stereotyping of roles including labelling a nurses outfit as ‘Girl’ and a pilot, soldier and superhero outfit as ‘Boy’.

The last time I checked, female pilots existed. And according to MOD figures 96% of posts are open to women in the RAF, 71% in the Royal Navy and 67% in the Army. Aren’t there also female super heroes? Superwoman, Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman to name just a few.

This raises a far more profound point about how much work we still have to do before we can achieve the same level of equality which is comparable to other parts of Europe.

The kind of stereotyping by a supermarket giant like Sainsbury’s is especially dangerous because the public trust and recognise what they are told by the brand it is therefore a powerful voice and has the ability to reinforce such messages. In this instance the message sexist labelling sends to children and young women is, that their aspirations will always be limited.

We must challenge this kind of behaviour at every given opportunity and that is the only way we can even begin to achieve the same level of gender equality that are enjoyed by many of our neighbours.