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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Through the Glass Ceiling - Equalities in the 21st Century

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

At a recent visit to Northampton University at the request of local MP Sally Keeble Meg gave the following speech to students and staff.


It’s not that unusual nowadays to hear people say that discrimination is a thing of the past - particularly for women. After all girls are doing better at school, more girls than boys go to university and consequently more women than men obtain degrees. So perhaps you think that the glass ceiling won’t happen to you because things have been changing for the better. Well, they are changing, but not nearly fast enough or for enough people.


A few statistics tell us this.


In parliament there have only ever been 291 women MPs. There are more than 500 men there today. That’s nearly 90 years after the time when women could first stand for parliament. Today still less than 1 in 5 MPs are women.


Overall less than 30% of local councillors are women. For public appointments it’s a bit better - 35% are held by women but only just over 6% by ethnic minority women.


In business less than 11% of directors of the FTSE companies are women. Only 1% of those in construction trades are women and in 2004 just 22 young women took up plumbing apprenticeships in England compared to more than 3000 young men.


Work is an important area of life. When you are in a job you want to be treated well. To feel that your employer wants you to succeed and progress through the organisation, not be held back because ‘someone’ has decided you’re the wrong colour, wrong gender or that because you have a disability you must be stupid. You want to work in an organisation that respects you for what you can do, that doesn’t judge you on the basis of irrelevant personal characteristics.


Discrimination in the workforce has implications not just for the person concerned. The fact is that today equality in the workplace is a key ingredient for successful business. Companies have to attract the best talent, and then help their employees make the most of their potential. That is the only way to stay competitive in today’s global market.


Changing Britain

Britain is changing fast - demographics, globalisation and migration make us more aware of different identities, cultures, religions and beliefs. There are the changing relationships between men and women, new family patterns and the needs of the labour market and public services.


We have to accept this new reality, we have no choice. At work this means different ways of working than in the past. Government and business alike have to respond to them, respond positively so we can reap the benefits that become available.


Equality in employment is a key factor in achieving equality in society. At the moment, women face barriers in the labour market - women working full-time receive, on average, just 87% of men’s pay. For women working part-time the gap is still wider. This gender pay gap isn't just bad news for women. The skills and abilities that women bring to the world of work are not being fully used - businesses suffer, the economy is held back. This is where we need to look not just at breaking through the glass ceiling but getting women off the lower level jobs which hold them back - what we’ve come to call sticky floors.


The Women and Work Commission was set up to examine the persistent problem of the pay and opportunities gap. Their final report, which came out earlier this year, contained a number of recommendations about:

  • the barriers to informed choice at school,
  • combining work and family life,
  • lifelong learning and training, and
  • improving workplace practice.


Government is taking action in these areas, and we recently launched our Action Plan on how we intend to proceed. We have already introduced a number of initiatives, such as providing more access to childcare and introducing flexible working arrangements. Women and men should have genuine choice about how to balance work and caring responsibilities.


With the Work and Families Act we have extended the right to request flexible working to careers of adults, and fathers have a new right to an additional period of paternity leave. With around 93% of dads taking leave around the birth of a child, this entitlement is expected to benefit between 9,000 and 16,000 fathers. This should help parents balance family responsibilities with work.


Too often women find that it’s when they have to start balancing their work life with their caring responsibilities, whether for children or older or disabled relatives, that they have to compromise on their hopes and ambitions. There is simply not enough quality part time work. Over 50% of women in part time work are working below their skill level - a huge personal cost to them but also skills lost to the economy. We’re working hard to get companies to sign up to putting in place measures to enable women to stay in their jobs when they need to reduce their hours.


Access to Skills

With a changing and diverse labour market access to skills is important. Lifelong learning is vital in order that people can pursue and progress in their chosen career. Through the Skills Strategy we introduced in July 2003, we aim to ensure that people have the skills to get the jobs they want and be personally fulfilled whilst doing them.


It is a fact that many women are in lower skilled, lower paid jobs, or out of the labour market altogether. Around half of women in part-time jobs are working below their skill level. We have to open up the opportunities available, help them move up the ladder to higher skilled and better paid jobs.


The UK currently faces a skills shortage in various sectors, such as construction, where women comprise of just 1% of employees. Promoting equality of opportunity for all could help reduce this shortage. This will also allow employers a wider pool of talent to choose from.


In addition, we know that occupational segregation is one of the main causes of the gender pay gap. It’s surprising but true that a staggering 70% of women with qualifications in science, engineering and technology do not work in those professions - while it is those same professions that regularly come up as having skills shortages.


A New Framework

We are creating a new framework to challenge persistent patterns of discrimination and inequality, and promote and protect diversity, good relations and human rights.

Firstly there is the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights. It will inherit the powers of the three existing Commissions who focus on equality relating to gender and race and rights for disabled people.


The Equality Act (2006) summarises its mandate: “the underlying objective of the new body is to support the development of a society where:

  • there is respect for the dignity and worth of every individual,
  • there is respect for and protection of each individual’s human rights,
  • people’s ability to achieve their potential is not limited by prejudice or discrimination,
  • every individual has an equal opportunity to participate in society, and
  • there is mutual respect between groups based on understanding and valuing diversity and on shared respect for equality and human rights.”


Of course words and aspirations are all fine and good, but what can the new Commission do to bring about real change?


The answer is that it will be a mix; enforcement of the law alongside a duty to promote and encourage new thinking and best practice in relation to diversity, good relations and human rights. It will have significant powers to take legal action and will also conduct investigations it has formed a reasonable belief that unlawful discrimination or harassment may have occurred. There will also be enforcement powers for the new regulations outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, religion or belief and age.


A Champion for Human Rights

However, the Commission for Equality and Human Rights is not just about enforcement, it will have a huge role as a champion for equality, diversity and human rights. Some of its functions include:

  • providing information, advice and assistance on equality and diversity, human rights and good relations issues,
  • issuing  guidance and good practice to help employers and service providers embrace equality and human rights,
  • publish a ‘State of the Nation’ report every three years: showing how Britain is doing on equality and human rights; setting out outcomes to work towards and benchmarks for progress,
  • challenge prejudice against and stereotyping of particular groups, and
  • establish a strong evidence base and understanding of discrimination, to inform future policy development and best practice.


It will have the power to provide grants to bodies working towards the objectives of the Commission. I believe that this area of its work will deliver some of the most exciting and productive outcomes, especially, when working with local networks. I say local networks because it is at the grassroots where we need to see the positive aspirations that are contained in national organisations bear fruit.


Also part of these changes is the work being undertaken by two reviews:

  • the Equalities Review, examining the root causes of persistent patters of inequality and how they can be tackled, expected to report later this year, and
  • the Discrimination Law Review, which is evaluating the effectiveness of current legislation, with a view to having a Single Equality Bill introduced in this Parliament.


While we in the UK have developed a strong legal framework that prohibits discrimination in the workplace, protection is not always available when it comes to unequal treatment in other situations.  That is why we ensured that the Equality Act that tackled discrimination against consumers and service users on the basis of religion or belief and sexual orientation. From next April this will be unlawful.   


We are also looking at the particular role the public sector has to play in promoting equality, and what duties it is appropriate for the public sector to have.  A Green Paper setting out initial proposals will be published around the turn of the year. This will open a consultation to which we hope all those interested will contribute their views.



The changes affecting British society are profound; increasing diversity creates opportunities and challenges.  We welcome the challenge of helping to shape the future society. If we are to achieve a country where young people can grow up feeling safe, thinking they have a shot at a good career, that they are valued for who they are, we have to tackle long-standing problems that continue to divide us. By overcoming these problems we can not only make life fairer for all our citizens, we also make our country a better one in which to live.


Thank you.

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