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Elisha Walia is a Senior Consultant at FTI Consulting and previously served as an advisor to Rt Hon Amber Rudd MP, the Home Secretary.

As a Conservative I am proud of the increased government focus on promoting gender equality in recent years.

During my time working as an assistant to Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, I witnessed firsthand the tremendous effort many MPs put in to support women early on in their careers.

Many aspirational schoolgirls were given the opportunity, as part of International Women’s Day celebrations, to shadow their local Member of Parliament for the day, go on a tour of Parliament to learn about its history and functions, and even visit Number 10 Downing Street.

Such initiatives are important in aspiring women from all walks of life to achieve their goals. However, Conservatives should go further to encourage the business community to work more with government to address any issues of gender bias head on.

In November 2016, a report was published following a government-backed independent review chaired by Sir Philip Hampton, Chairman of GlaxoSmithKline, and Dame Helen Alexander, Chair of UBM plc.

It stated that the UK’s corporate governance code should be amended so that all FTSE 350 companies disclose their gender balance in their annual reports and accounts and recommended that at FTSE 100 companies women should make up one-third of the employees who are on, or directly report to, executive committees.

On her appointment as Prime Minister, Theresa May pledged to reform corporate governance as one of her top priorities and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy has issued a Green Paper on how to improve the UK corporate governance framework, calling on businesses and investors to give their views on what can be done on the issue.

The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee is also currently conducting an inquiry into Corporate Governance, examining directors’ duties, executive pay, and the make-up of boards with regards to gender balance. Such actions are putting companies under increased pressure to prioritise improvements in corporate governance culture and gender equality.

Businesses should view these measures as an opportunity rather than a threat-  one where they can take the lead in discussing how best they and the Government can work together to promote gender equality, maximise female contribution to UK economic growth, and help deliver a change in culture to better utilise the skills and talents of women throughout their careers.

A genuine change in cuture can only truly come about if women’s issues are also considered to be men’s issues  as well as a UK economic priority.

In material terms, it is important to address the gender pay gap and ensure that women are being rewarded equally for their hard work. Of course, there should not be any excuses for paying anyone less because of their background or their gender.

However, even if women are paid equally to men, gender inequality will still exist unless there is a change in culture and women feel comfortable in their working environment without being subject to biases or discrimination.

Businesses need to look at individual experiences, not merely at the corporate objectives and intent. Even where there are clear criteria for hiring and promotions, many women do not feel that they have equal opportunities for career progression at their companies.

Like most Conservatives, I have never believed that quotas for women on boards are the way forward. In order to truly overcome gender barrier gaps we need all men and women on boards to regard their ability as being on equal footing to all other members; not a result of external pressures or tokenism.

Businesses must look to develop and mentor their female employees to help them rise to the top. Not only will this result in an increase in the number of women on boards in a less coercive manner, but we will also see a meaningful change in corporate culture.

Businesses that nurture aspiration and self-belief in more women and encourage them to put themselves forward for opportunities will win the talent war and reap the benefits.

More can also be done to support women in non-traditional jobs, such as engineering and technology; this makes good business sense as it can not only help to breakdown social stereotypes and prejudices, but it can make a big difference to companies in fully utilising the talents of many women and addressing the skills deficit.

Particularly given the UK’s aging population, gender equality measures can boost economic growth while offsetting the impact of a decreasing workforce. The Women’s Business Council predicted that the UK could add 10 per cent to its GDP by 2030 if all the women that wanted to work were employed.

The business community should take advantage of this period of heightened gender equality debate to show the Government and the wider society that they are embracing the benefits that diversity can bring, and are adopting good practices to break down the barriers preventing women from reaching their full potential in the workplace.

For example, companies could examine all levels within their organisations, collect data, set expectations, and share best practices in helping to ensure that women get all the support, training, and inspiration they need early on in their careers to progress into the top roles, including through flexible working, shared parental leave and re-skilling. This can lead to many commercial improvements in terms of performance, governance, and reputation.

Conservatives must encourage businesses to implement cultural changes and partner with government to support women in unlocking their potential, in order to help the UK maintain and strengthen its reputation as one of the best places in the world to do business. That’s what Margaret Thatcher would have wanted.

24 comments for: Elisha Walia: Conservatives must encourage business to join the equality debate

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