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Mary Honeyball MEP: Why I back European Parliament's target of 40% women on boards

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MEP for London Mary Honeyball on her masterplan to tackle gender inequality

2020 will be an important year for women in Europe. The European Parliament has set out clear targets: we hope to have eliminated the gender pay gap across the 28 Member States, and for at least 40% of non-exec directors at top companies to be women. The aim is clear: gender equality from the tip to the base of the employment pyramid.

It is vital for me that Britain fulfils its part in this. I don’t want to see us fall further behind other European countries.

The present economic situation of UK women is challenging to say the least. At 20% our gender pay gap is the sixth widest of the 28 EU member states. The gulf in even greater – 33% – in The City of London. Women are more likely to be badly paid, making up 56% of those on zero hours contracts and 61% of those earning less than the London Living Wage. At the top, meanwhile, women comprise just 19% of board members at FTSE 100 companies (only two of which are now run by women, following the departure of Angela Ahrendts from Burberry this week).

As MEP for London, a city which leads the way on economic decision-making but which also has entrenched inequality, I know achieving Europe’s 2020 vision for gender won’t be easy. For every Docklands Managing Director there is a cleaner who arrives at 4am to hoover the office. The former is four times as likely to be male, the latter twice as likely to be female.

So how do we solve this?

I you read certain newspapers you will be told it comes down to personality – that women are not thrusting enough or are too diffident. The Daily Mail blames a “don’t ask, don’t get” tendency among women, and the Telegraph were quick to seize on Jo Swinson’s suggestion that women are afraid to ask male colleagues what they earn. There may be some truth in these theories, but for me they are diversionary. They trivialise the problem of women’s pay, reducing it to pop psychology and overlooking the very real structural obstacles women face.

The main issue, of course, remains the problem of parenthood. Once women have children they often either temporarily leave work or are forced to drop down to less skilled jobs which they can do part-time. At the age of 30 the pay gap widens dramatically, and from then on women lag ever further behind.

The proof of this is in the situation of older women who are, as Jackie Ashley pointed out last month, disproportionately likely to be long-term unemployed. At 50-65 years of age these women are of boardroom age. Their present predicament shows that we cannot treat women’s absence on boards as an issue in isolation.

I have written for LondonLovesBusiness in the past arguing for compulsory representation for women at the top of companies, and I remain a supporter of quotas. This week I helped vote through European Parliament proposals favouring a 40% target for women on boards. But to make quotas work effectively it is vital that we solve the inequalities which kick in when women have children – i.e. fifteen or twenty years before they potentially reach the boardroom. Without a steady progression of women in their 30s and 40s moving up organisations there won’t be enough female candidates to choose from for top jobs, and it will become easier for accusations of tokenism to take hold.

Last week’s report by The TimewiseFoundation brings these issues into sharp relief. The longitudinal study, which followed 80 mothers over the course of three years, shows the obstacles which prevent them from returning to the jobs market.

The study finds that that most women want to return to work – for their own sense of fulfilment as much as through financial necessity. It suggests the principal obstacle is a lack of good flexible employment. The most striking finding is the universal nature of the issue; whether they were at the top or the bottom of the jobs ladder, women spoken to faced almost identical barriers.

With part-time workers earning 37% less than full-time workers – and those in part-time work three times as likely to be women – it is no wonder that we in the UK are struggling to reduce our gender pay gap. Timewise founder Emma Stewart said “The exodus of so many talented and experienced women from the London labour market has serious implications for London’s future economy and for families’ falling living standards.”

I would add that it jeopardises our chances of achieving Europe’s 2020 vision for gender equality. If Britain is to avoid falling behind the rest of the continent on this then it is vital that we make a commitment to high quality part-time work.

Mary Honeyball is MEP for London and a member of the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee. She is Labour’s spokesperson for women in Europe.




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