If you’re reading this in a café, take a quick look around. If you’re at home near a busy street, glance out the window. Chances are you’ll see a fairly even mix of men and women – but, once you get to the boardroom or walk the corridors of power, all that changes.
Strong women hold families together and are at the heart of society but the sad truth is that too few of them are reaching positions of power in public and commercial life.
Over the years, I’ve met some amazing and inspiring women – many from the thriving Jewish community in my Hornsey and Wood Green constituency – who are giving men a run for their money and taking on leadership roles. But there are still not enough.
Inspiring women can be found everywhere – whether they are busy mums, top businesswomen, or those determined to make a difference like the Commission on Women in Jewish Leadership (CWJL) chair and Mitzvah Day founder, Laura Marks. But in too many cases women’s talent is slipping through the net.
Progress has been made but there is much to do. As Equalities Minister, I am working to do something about it. I want to improve the gender balance both in the boardroom and in public life. A government-commissioned review last year called for 25 per cent of directors of major companies to be women. Since then, the proportion of female directors at FTSE 100 companies has risen from 12.5 per cent to 15 per cent.
So some progress has been made but there is much still to do. The issue is not just about the principle of promoting fairness; there is a strong pragmatic argument, too. Making better use of women’s talents is crucial to our economic success. If women started businesses at the same rate as men, there would be an additional 150,000 start-ups each year in the UK. This reveals a well of untapped talent.
And if we had the same level of female entrepreneurship as the United States has, there would be around 600,000 extra women-owned businesses, contributing an extra £42 billion to the economy. So the government is putting women at the heart of Britain’s economic future.
We have provided £2 million to support women’s rural enterprise as well as establishing a women’s business council to advise on what more we can do to maximise women’s contribution to future economic growth.
Part of the problem is that many women simply lack the confidence to put themselves forward and make their voices heard. The Jewish community is often seen as very traditional, and research for the CWJL has found that men dominate in leadership roles. This is reflected across UK society as a whole, despite the fact that girls tend to perform better at school.
As well as promoting women leaders, the government is actively encouraging women who have thought about starting their own business but who, for various reasons, feel it is too risky. We have recently announced new funding for a mentoring scheme for women, designed to allay concerns and help them realise their potential.
In the Jewish world, women have set up or run many successful creative organisations (such as Jewish Book Week, the Jewish Film Festival and Limmud) but they don’t seem to break through in larger established ones. Mentoring may be one answer.
But the government cannot act on this alone. That is why initiatives like the CWJL are so important. It is an example of a community working together to support and inspire women.
I have seen at first-hand the great social and economic contribution from the Jewish community. This is echoed across Britain and we have a string of impressive female role models. Together we can create more.
Lynne Featherstone is the Equalities Minister and a Liberal Democrat MP