International Women's Day Debate

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, Jess Phillips, for remembering those women who have 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.

 

Intervention - Eddie Hughes 

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. Being the first female MP in Chichester, its seems like Parliament was the last place to catch up with all the other sectors in West Sussex, which is well represented by some fabulous women who are brilliant to work with.

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”.