Celebrating International Women’s Day and debating the role the UK plays in promoting gender equality
My Lords, as we come together in your Lordship’s House, millions of people around the world are celebrating International Women’s Day. People who have travelled very different paths and faced difficult challenges but who are united in the belief that no country can flourish - socially, economically or democratically - if it leaves half its people behind.
This year’s theme is "Be bold for change". In some regard, it is a sad indictment that despite the integral roles women play in every aspect of life we still struggle to be considered equal.
In the opening years of the 20th century, courageous women joined hands and stood beside each other in solidarity. Outside this very House, Suffragettes fought for women’s rights in our democracy. Yet more than one hundred years on we are still striving to become a society that is truly equal.
I do feel a great sense of unity and purpose in your Lordship’s House today and I have every confidence that this will be a significant and meaningful debate, but this debate goes way beyond our borders. The responsibility to raise awareness and tackle gender inequality in all its forms is universal; it sits at the very heart of achieving fundamental human rights and equality for all.
In this country, we can be enormously proud of our progress on gender equality. This government has made great strides in ensuring that men and women are rewarded equally for their skills and abilities. More women than ever before are in work, and the gender pay gap is at its lowest point in history. New regulations, which will come into force next month, will further promote transparency and move us significantly in the direction of eliminating the pay gap altogether.
This progress, combined with our introduction of shared parental leave and pay, is an important step in recognising the often-undervalued work that women do. It goes a long way in addressing the impact of punitive career setbacks that occur when one parent takes on the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities.
I remember those painful setbacks myself. As single mother, I experienced the immense pressure of wanting to be a perfect and indestructible parent whilst having to support my son alone and trying to lead a successful professional life. It is a balancing act that is often misunderstood, one that can be incredibly challenging and heart breaking, which is why it of the utmost importance we give single parents the credit and support they deserve.
Luckily, in my professional life, I have had the privilege of working in some of the most forward thinking, creative, and innovative companies, and throughout this experience I have witnessed great women contributing their skills and talents to improving our lives through technology and innovation.
Technology has the power to be a great leveller. The Internet represents opportunity on a mass scale, and in theory it empowers equally. Yet when it comes to the question of women and their place in the technology sector this rule does not seem to apply. Often it is quite the opposite, as men outnumber women and dominate senior roles.
Women currently fill less than 30% of tech jobs in the UK. One explanation is that there are simply not enough women applying for these roles, and even fewer girls studying science, technology and coding in secondary school. This wasn’t always the case. In fact, women in the UK played a significant role in the beginnings of modern computing. The portrait of Ada Lovelace that hangs proudly in No. 10 Downing Street is a testament to this.
The Countess of Lovelace was a brilliant mathematician who wrote the first instructions for the analytical engine, which launched the birth of computing. And we can’t forget the proud tradition of the pioneering women codebreakers of Bletchley Park, and women in Science and Technology all over the world for that matter. Like the Hidden Figures of NASA, as recently portrayed in the Oscar nominated film. These brilliant African-American women scientists calculated the crucial flight trajectories for Project Mercury and other successful space missions but received faint praise at the time.
But by the 1980s the advent of home computing made the industry more lucrative and we started seeing advertising showing teenage boys playing video games, making them the de-facto experts in this once female-friendly business. Jobs in IT became high status and as the pay packets grew bigger, men took over the jobs previously done by women. So much so that in my first computer science class in 1980 there were just three women in a class of 400!
This government wants women to be back where they belong – taking the lead in computing. We were the first government globally to introduce computing into the national curriculum, allowing pupils to learn to use computational thinking and creativity as active participants in the digital world. We work with some fantastic organisations, such as the STEMettes, who provide effective mentoring schemes and events for young women and girls, giving them the confidence and belief that they can succeed in science, technology engineering and maths.
Programmes such as Women Who Code, a global nonprofit is working to inspire women and encourage them to embrace careers in technology. And nationwide programmes, such as Code Club, provide networks of volunteer-led after school coding clubs for younger children and girls in particular.
In addition, this government is supporting women entrepreneurs investing £2.2M as part of the Superfast Broadband Rollout, which enables them to access new markets and grow their businesses online.
The UK is a world leader in gender equality, and we take great pride in that, but outside the UK millions of girls are kept from attending school, and this is a significant factor in their poverty and lack of economic opportunity. UK Aid has helped educate 5.3 million girls globally, giving them choice over their futures and the means to secure their livelihoods. We have also played an important role in securing a global agreement for UN Sustainable Development Goal number 5: to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
Internationally, this government has been a powerful global voice on the protection of women’s equality. We have established a benchmark through the Modern Slavery Act, which gives law enforcement the tools to fight this appalling crime, ensure perpetrators are brought to justice and enhance support and protection for victims.
The Home Office is coordinating efforts across government and globally to tackle the crime of FGM. It is supporting the work of voluntary and community sectors, survivors and professionals that oppose this extreme manifestation of gender inequality and abuse. This work enables us to raise the awareness of FGM that is desperately needed, and it is becoming part of a wider conversation that empowers women globally to have open discussions, both online and offline, about this devastating practise.
This government has made great strides in tackling the issue of Forced Marriage. The passing of the landmark Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, made it a criminal offence to force someone to marry, sending an unequivocal message that we as a nation believe in the fundamental right of total choice for women in marriage. Greater awareness of this problem has also been raised by the Forced Marriage Unit’s 2015’s ‘right to choose’ campaign, where a short film was commissioned to raise awareness amongst young people at risk of being forced into marriage, as well as potential perpetrators of this crime.
Progress has also been made in confronting the issue of ‘Revenge Porn’, an insidious harm with an incredibly destructive psychological impact on the young women of today. In addition to the Crown Prosecution Service’s updated guidelines that clarify the use of relevant laws to support successful convictions in this area, under new legislation, The Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, it will soon be far easier to prosecute instances of ‘Revenge Porn’, with those found guilty of it facing a potential 2 years in prison and a fine.
I firmly believe that technology is a vital piece of the puzzle in female empowerment. Today, it is the means by which we communicate, learn, network and engage with global markets. Thus digital technologies have great potential as tools for the inclusion of marginalised groups, enabling new kinds of participation in economic and political processes. Recently we saw this potential in action as women organised online and marched in cities around the world to defend their basic human rights.
But the digital world must also be safe, inclusive and empowering. That means building resilience through digital education, and equipping all people with the tools to respond to and report harmful online content, so that there is no opportunity to use the Internet as a weapon against equality.
I know that many of you here have been the recipients of hurtful, aggressive and degrading online attacks. Online misogyny is abhorrent. It is a global gender rights tragedy and it must be addressed. We air our views on social media and we are punished with mockery, harassment and the threat of sexual abuse. For many, this is compounded by racist and homophobic language. These tactics are used to undermine our human rights, our dignity and to silence our voices.
To that end, the recently announced review of Domestic Abuse and Violence Legislation presents us with an opportunity to simplify the wide-ranging legal protections that exist. Nobody should be left in any doubt of our commitment to ensure all women and girls live free from violence and abuse whether online or in their communities.
Our commitment to this cause is exemplified by the work of WePROTECT Global Alliance, which was founded and funded by this government. Today, WeProtect works in collaboration with over 70 countries, NGO’s, law enforcement and industry leaders, as part of a multi-stakeholder initiative to galvanise global action to eradicate child sexual exploitation and abuse online. In addition to this the newly announced cross-Government drive on online safety led by DCMS will bring together the Home Office, Department for Education, Department of Health and Ministry of Justice, as part of a powerful, coordinated effort to continue our work to make the internet safer.
We are also using new technology-led communications to speak directly to young people about how to recognise abuse. Our acclaimed teenage relationship abuse campaign, Disrespect NoBody, encourages teens to rethink their views of violence, abuse, and consent. Young people need the information and tools to build healthy, respectful and nurturing relationships. That is why last week the Government announced the new duty of all schools to provide education on relationships as part of PSHE curriculum.
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) works across the UK to tackle child sex abuse and provide advice for parents and young people. This work is both national and international and ensures that online child sex offenders are brought to justice in the UK courts. This includes, those involved in the production, distribution and viewing of child abuse material.
But my Lords, more needs to be done. Today’s theme ‘Be Bold for Change’, means everyone is watching expectantly to ensure that we continue making progress. Progress won’t come easily, no true progress ever does, but I am sure I speak for all noble Lords today in embracing the commitment to never stop striving towards a truly equal society.
I beg to move.