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Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.

Bright Blue recently published a collection of essays called Burning Injustices. I was pleased to contribute a chapter on continuing injustices relating to gender. This was an issue highlighted by the Prime Minister, who cited the gender pay gap, in her speech on the steps of Downing Street when she first took office.

Last week’s publication by the Business Department of the worst reasons given to the Hampton Alexander Review for not appointing women to FTSE 100 boards showed we have a long way to go to get more women on the boards of some of our biggest and most successful companies. These included:

  • I don’t think women fit comfortably into the board environment.’
  • ‘There aren’t that many women with the right credentials and depth of experience to sit on the board – the issues covered are extremely complex.’
  • ‘Most women don’t want the hassle or pressure of sitting on a board.’
  • ‘Shareholders just aren’t interested in the make-up of the board, so why should we be?’
  • ‘My other board colleagues wouldn’t want to appoint a woman on our board.’
  • ‘All the ‘good’ women have already been snapped up.’
  • ‘We have one woman already on the board, so we are done – it is someone else’s turn.’
  • ‘There aren’t any vacancies at the moment – if there were I would think about appointing a woman.’
  • ‘We need to build the pipeline from the bottom – there just aren’t enough senior women in this sector.’
  • ‘I can’t just appoint a woman because I want to.’

Getting women on the boards of companies is just a tiny aspect of the gender equality debate. Perhaps most women indeed don’t want to be main board directors – but they do want to be given an equal opportunity, and this is something that Conservatives should champion. And it is important that we have women represented at every level in government, business, the third sector and in the Conservative Party.

One of the biggest steps that the Conservatives in government have taken towards gender equality was introducing gender pay gap regulations. The necessary disclosures made by organisations with more than 250 employees are not just about pay, but about where women are within an organisation.

Lo and behold, the revelation (certainly for many male bosses, though not for most women) is that women tend to be disproportionately represented towards the bottom, less well-paid ranks of employees and not at the top. I know from my days as a solicitor that whilst it is often the case that over 50 per cent of trainee solicitors are women, that figure falls significantly the closer they get to partnership. The legal profession isn’t alone in this, so it was great to see Caroline Dinenage, the former Minister for Women and now a Health Minister, writing last week about the review set up to examine the gender pay gap in the NHS.

Now, many ConservativeHome readers will be asking: why does gender matter – surely we want the ‘best people’ to be directors, bosses, MPs, consultant doctors etc. The trouble with this take is that some of the ‘best people’ are women…and they undoubtedly find it harder to progress to the top of their chosen field.

So this column isn’t a call for positive discrimination.  Rather, it is a very Conservative call for everyone to be given the chance to make the most of their talents. After all, we have no difficulty, as Conservatives, in calling for barriers to setting up and growing successful businesses to be removed, So there should be no difficulty in making the case to remove the barriers to enable individuals to be personally successful.

The Treasury Select Committee has been focusing on the Women in Finance Charter (first announced by one of our successful female MPs, the then Economic Secretary to the Treasury, Harriett Baldwin) by holding an inquiry on women in finance. As I say in my Bright Blue essay: “the fact is that gender discrimination today is more insidious and, as the evidence given to the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee’s recent Women in Finance inquiry shows, the biases are often unconscious. That means they are both harder to spot and harder to deal with; but they still need to be called out.”

And that means tackling and refuting daft explanations as set out above. Three cheers to Andrew Griffiths, the Minister responsible in the Business Department, and to the Hampton Alexander Review for publishing them. Sunlight is always the best disinfectant.

103 comments for: Nicky Morgan: Women on boards. We need fair access – not positive discrimination. And no more evasive excuses.

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