Last week I was delighted to address 100 female entrepreneurs and business leaders at an Inspirational Females conference organised by the North East Chamber of Commerce.
What happens in the workplace is absolutely crucial to supporting women to progress in leadership roles, not just at the top, but at the bottom and in the middle too.
There’s an inevitable tendency when talking about getting women into leadership to focus on the boardroom, on quotas, on progression routes for senior female managers, and that’s all well and good.
But my contention is what happens below is just as important – if not more important, because we’ll never smash the glass ceiling unless we also address the sticky floor. You can’t be a high-flyer if you aren’t able to take off.
Our offices and factories should be places where people can balance work with other responsibilities without detriment to their careers.
There has been some progress. The new right to request flexible working that came into force last year and shared parental leave will help women advance in the workplace.
But we need to go much, much further.
Let’s have high-quality part-time work available at every level, family-friendly working arrangements accessible to all and a revolution in childcare, with free, high-quality provision for everyone who needs it – and a fair deal for the childcare workforce.
Let’s also have mandatory equal pay audits, so we address our obscene gender pay gap, more generous and flexible maternity and parental rights so we tackle the motherhood penalty and an end to our long hours culture, so we build more productive workplaces that help rather than hinder family life.
As the voice of ordinary workers – both women and men – trade unions have a critical role to play in facilitating this kind of culture change.
We’ll work with good employers to raise standards; and we’ll hold the bad ones to account. The TUC wants all women to be given the chance to shine, not just the chosen few.
And we want bold strategies for addressing the acute challenges facing older women in particular.
Because as the TUC’s Age Immaterial campaign has highlighted, it’s those aged 50 and above who are often bearing the brunt of inequality and discrimination.
At the other end of the spectrum, we want to see more help for young women.
Any time NEETs are on the news, you’ll see a picture of a young, disaffected man in a hoodie.
But the reality is that the number of young women NEETs has outstripped the number of male NEETs for over a decade.
We simply cannot allow a generation of young women to be shut out of the labour market – potentially paving the way for regression in workplace equality. Equality isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s the bright thing to do.
From the church to trade unions, from big companies to the NHS, from political parties to charities, the most effective institutions are those that reflect the communities, customers and constituencies they serve.
At a time when the most powerful politician in Europe is a woman, Angela Merkel; when the most powerful central banker in the world is a woman, Janet Yellen; when the most powerful economic policymaker on the planet is a woman, Christine Lagarde – there should be no obstacle to women playing an equal role in any sphere of our public life.
TUC Northern Region Secretary