When it comes to women on boards we must avoid ‘chicken or egg’ thinking

Labour Party

Based on an article originally written for LondonLovesBusiness

In a landmark moment the European Parliament today voted in favour of 40% female representation on boards by 2020. The plans, originally put forward by the European Commission’s Viviane Reding, went through the parliament this afternoon. This represents the biggest step yet in the EU’s drive to get women into economic decision-making positions.

The vote does not just represent a symbolic move, but a potential transformation of the way in which businesses operate. To achieve the kind of ‘cultural changes’ that Conservatives – such as the Equalities Secretary Maria Miller – propose, we surely need women to be at the top of companies making these changes happen. EU endorsement could therefore be the trigger for a sea-change in the way business is done; an effective end to the ‘boys club’ mentality.

Despite the fact that Germany – Britain’s most direct business competitor – this week signalled a commitment to quotas, the UK remains among the rump of EU countries which still favour voluntary or no action. This is a stance which will come under ever more intense scrutiny once the proposals passed on Wednesday go to the Council of Ministers (the body comprising the domestic leaders of the 28 Member States) next year.

With Cameron currently among the seven or so national leaders expected to block the plans, the UK government will have to explain how they expect to achieve gender parity without quotas. In light of the huge success that binding legislation has had in accelerating progress in France, Italy and Holland this will be a difficult case to make. Despite being Europe’s financial capital, Britain could once again find itself swimming against global tides as a Europe-wide consensus on gender equality builds.

The claim the government makes is that getting women onto boards will not change the ‘fundamental’ issue. The Department for Business proposes instead an educational and cultural approach, which they say will get women into executive positions from the ‘bottom up’. When I discussed this with Conservative MEP Marina Yannakoudakis on the Daily Politics yesterday she was keen to distinguish between non-executive positions and “other levels of business”. The Tory strategy is clear: depict female board representation as a sideshow – an impediment to focusing on the lack of women in management.

For me this argument is flawed. It suggests that getting women onto boards must either be the catalyst for a change in business culture or the product of it – that there can only be one, exclusive solution to this problem. This is an example of ‘chicken or egg’ thinking gone mad, and presents a false binary – as though getting women into boardrooms and making businesses more female-friendly lower down somehow contradict one another.

In fact, they are mutually reinforcing; more balance in the boardroom means a company ethos more sympathetic to women, which in turn increases the chances of women rising to board level. A virtuous circle is created. Higher quality part-time or flexible work, for example, is for me one of the best methods of preventing a pay gap opening up while women are in their thirties and forties (and thus approaching boardroom age). But it is something which companies are far less likely to consider if they do not have confident female advocates among their directors.

For Britain to capitalise on today’s vote we must stop the UK government from turning the women on boards issue into an artificial ‘top-down vs bottom up’ choice. To genuinely overcome the glass ceiling we need both: women pushing from below and women pulling them up from above. Gender parity from the tip to the base of the jobs pyramid.

With a Europe-wide consensus now establishing itself on this issue, we must increase pressure on the UK government to be proactive. We can no longer pretend that a fairer workplace will take place in splendid isolation.

BBC2 Daily Politics Women on Boards

Labour Party

Yesterday I debated the need for more women on company boards with London Conservative MEP Marina Yannakoudakis on BBC2’s Daily Politics. We were interviewed by Jo Coburn with Iain Dale providing additional comment. I am clear that there needs to be legislative action to ensure women across Europe are better represented. It is better for business and better for society.

Discussing the Gender Equality Index on Women’s Hour

Labour Party

Yesterday I appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour talking about the first Gender Equality Index to be published for the European Union.  I was joined by Marina Yannakoudakis for a very interesting discussion about this important document.  You can listen to our segment by using the media player below.

Tory MEPs defy Cameron on EU carbon market vote

Labour Party

Yesterday in a tight vote in the full session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, most Tory MEPs chose to vote with climate sceptics , thereby going against their own government.  The cost of carbon trading permits in Europe’s emissions trading scheme (ETS) has sunk due to the economic crisis. Yesterday’s vote was intended to allow the release of fewer permits for auction in the short-term to try to get the price back up again.

By voting against this important element in both British Government and EU climate policy, Tory MEPs put their fanatical euro-scepticism ahead of British jobs and our environment. All three Conservative MEPs for London, Marina Yannakoudakis, Charles Tannock and Syed Kamall, voted with the climate change sceptics against the UK’s best interests. Amazingly, Tory MEPs ignored the strong views expressed by their own Ministers in London.

It is now confirmed that Members of the European Parliament voted 334-315 against the measure.  After the vote, the EU carbon price immediately fell 44 percent to a new record low of 2.63 euros a tonne.

My colleague Linda McAvan who leads for the Socialist and Democrat Group on climate change described the vote in the European Parliament as “a catastrophe for the environment,” adding “”The UK carbon floor price for the power sector came into force at the beginning of this month, so UK electricity providers are currently paying an extra £4.94 per tonne of carbon they emit. This is more than double the current ETS price for carbon, and it’s set to rise to five times the projected ETS price by 2015.”

 Even as former Tory Ministers who worked closely with Mrs Thatcher said publicly that she was the first head of government to recognise the science of climate change and would have warmly welcomed the free market solution offered by the EU’s emissions trading scheme (ETS), Tory MEPs blithely voted not to support the pan-European solution. It’s yet another case of the coalition setting themselves up as the ‘greenest government ever’ while their MEPs in Brussels vote against environmental measures.

Not only have the Tories snubbed their own leader, but they’ve also dismissed the views of a huge range of experts and businesses who believed this change would have been good for the environment, the consumer and industry.  Those who supported the proposal included the CBI, Shell, Philips, Tesco, Unilever, Kingfisher, Johnson & Johnson, SSE, E.ON, UKEnergy, UK Green Building Council and the UK Corporate Leaders Group.

Sadly, their efforts fell on deaf ears as the Tory MEPs sided unscientific climate change deniers in the face of reasonable arguments from all sides.

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.


Quotas for women on company boards – BBC Daily Politics programme

Labour Party

Yesterday I was very pleased to be invited by the BBC Daily Politics programme to talk about quotas for women on the boards of top companies.

 I was on with my Conservative counterpart in London, Marina Yannakoudakis MEP.

 This is our discussion which lasts for about six minutes.

Tories abstain on equal pay for women

Labour Party

The gender pay gap, the difference between pay received between women and men, exists across the European Union. In the UK the gender pay gap is 10.2 per cent – not the worst in the EU but still far too high. The gap is widest in Austria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Germany and Slovakia and narrowest in Belgium, Italy, Malta and Slovenia, according to Eurostat.

Yesterday the European Parliament passed a report on equal pay for male and female workers for equal work or work of equal value. Despite having legislation on equal pay for over 50 years there is still a 16%-17% gender pay gap in the EU. All attempts to lessen and ultimately get rid of the pay gap between women and men are absolutely necessary, and this report is an important step.

In view of the lack of progress to date, MEPs urged the European Commission and member states to reinforce existing legislation with appropriate types of effective, proportionate and dissuasive sanctions for employers in breach of it. These sanctions should include penalties, administrative fines and disqualification from public benefits and subsidies.

It is not just that women are at a higher risk of falling into poverty. Statistics show that the gender gap is growing with age. There is also a gap when it comes to pensions and older women have a greater risk of falling into poverty than men do.

Even in sectors where women employees prevail, men tend to have higher salaries. Horizontal and vertical segregations of economic sectors are deeply rooted in the economies of all EU member states, but it has also much to do with culture and with society’s approach to motherhood.

It is really striking is there are now more women who graduate, and statistics show that women who start their working careers are better paid than young men in the UK. The gap appears for the first time when women return to the labour market after their first maternal leave.  It is time to change the approach to motherhood and evaluate parenthood in society.

Yesterday’s report makes several concrete proposals, including:

  • more transparency about the way      salaries are negotiated and settled to prevent women receiving less than      men
  • the European Parliament should offer      a “Women in Business Europe” prize to be awarded to employers
  • employers to be required to carry out      regular equal pay audits
  • attention to part-time work where the      gender pay gap is highest
  • measures to ensure disadvantaged      women and women with disabilities are not treated less favourably
  • additional research on this issue to      be carried out by the European Institute for Gender Equality as well as EU      member states
  • the European Commission to review and      update existing legislation
  • member states to behave in an      exemplary manner regarding ending the gender pay gap and each to appoint      an equal pay champion

You may be interested to know that British Tories voted against the paragraphs in the report outlining the first two of these recommendations.

Since the votes on these two paragraphs were recorded, I can tell you that the following Tories voted against both: Campbell-Bannerman, Chichester, Deva, Elles, Ford, Foster, Fox, Girling, Harbour, McClarkin, McIntyre, Stevenson, Swinburne, Tannock, Van Orden, Yannakoudakis. The leader of the ECR Martin Callanan voted against the second of these two paragraphs but did not appear to vote on the first.

All of the above abstained on the final vote to agree the report with the honourable exception of Marina Yannakoudakis who voted for it. Mr. Campbell-Bannerman, however, voted against.

If David Cameron is serious about gaining women’s votes and promoting gender equality, he really should do something about his errant MEPs.

BBC Record Europe – Women on Boards and the Gender Pay Gap

Labour Party

On Saturday I appeared on the BBC’s Record Europe to discuss women on boards, the possibility of introducing quotas, and the gender pay gap.  The BBC’s  Shirin Wheeler was chairing the discussion and we were joined by Mikael Gustafsson MEP, chair of the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee, from Sweden.  Alongside him was Pedro Oliviera from Business Europe and Marina Yannakoudakis MEP, the Tory spokesperson on Women’s Rights and a member of the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee.  It was an interesting discussion focusing on the necessity of tackling this issue on the European Level.

In case you missed it, I have posted the clip above.

A woman’s place is in Europe

Labour Party

Last Friday I spoke at the European Parliament’s offices in London about International Women’s Day. My thanks to Paola Buonadonna for all her work in putting the event “A Woman’s Place is in Europe” together. Our moderator was the BBC’s Europe expert Shirin Wheeler, and I sat on the left with Emma Reynolds MP Shadow Europe Minister. On the right at the event, and politically were Marina Yannakoudakis Conservative MEP for London and Heather McGregor businesswoman and Financial Times “Mrs. Moneypenny” columnist.

We ran out of time with all the questions and contributions from the floor. I attach two videos. The first is an introduction by Shirin Wheeler, and the second is my speech for those who were unable to attend on the day.


Early School Leaving

Labour Party

My report on the problem of Early School Leaving (ESL) has been voted on by the European Parliament.  I’m happy to report that it was passed almost unanimously with 543 MEPs voting in support of it. Of course the 23 Tories present, including London MEPs Marina Yannakoudakis, Syed Kamall and Charles Tannock, voted against it.

I hope now that the report will help reach the EU 2020’s very ambitious target of reducing early school leaving by 10% by 2020. 

This report follows on from my work on Early Years Learning in the EU, where I highlighted the importance of Member States providing high-quality early years services for children aged 0-6.  It also follows the publication (in January 2011) of the Commission’s Communication on Tackling Early School Leaving.

Writing this report has taught me that ESL is a complex phenomenon and one of the hugest challenges facing Europe at present. Although rates vary across EU Member States, as well as between towns and regions, the European average in 2009 was 14.4%.

In my report I define early school leavers as individuals between the age of 18 and 24 who have left education and training with only lower secondary education or less.  Though for some not having this level of qualification may not be such a hindrance, but the fact is over 50% of people in this category are unemployed. 

My report also looked at the causes ESL, which are typically a process of disengagement, as a result of personal, social, economic, geographical, education or family-related reasons.  A significant part of the problem can also be attributed to lack of support or guidance, disengagement, and courses and modules that are too rigid.

The consequences are far reaching as well, contributing to social exclusion in later life and driving economic and social instability, with higher rates of antisocial behaviour, teenage pregnancy and drug abuse.

But there are solutions to this problem and in the report I recommend that a personalised and inclusive approach be adopted, with counselling service in schools, better career guidance for students and mentoring schemes.  I also believe that Member States should introduce a system of means-tested financial support for those who need it, like the educational maintenence allowance in the UK, which the Tories unthinkingly destroyed.  There are numerous studies that show that such support means that young people who would otherwise have to leave school at 16 to support their families or, more importantly, themselves can afford to continue their secondary education.

Perhaps one of the biggest problems is the provision of ‘Second-chance’ schools.  These should be able to reintegrate school leavers back into the education system without stigmatisation and with proper support.  The report even recommends that if someone is working, their employer should provide them with reasonable, but limited amount of time off to get their secondary qualifications.

The fact is that there are fewer and fewer jobs that do not require some level of qualification.  This is a problem that could lead to even higher levels of unemployment in the future if it is not addressed now.  What’s more, young people who have been let down by the education system will find themselves increasingly excluded and impoverished.

This report will now be sent to the Commission and the Council and I hope that it will inform a larger part of the discussion around these issues.