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The Changing Role of Women

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This weekend we mark the 103rd International Women's Day. It's an opportunity to celebrate women's social, economic and political achievements and, just as importantly, to highlight the barriers to full equality that still exist, more than a century on.

But this year is also the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, and I'd like to take this opportunity: the beginning of the war and the first IWD, to draw some parallels. Not only was the war a turning point in history but it was a turning point for women.

When we read commentary in the papers, or listen to debate on the television ahead of the WW1 centenary, the voices that we hear are on the whole, men's voices.

But women back home worked hard and made sacrifices to ensure the war effort could continue. Over three million women were in work and the jobs they did were low paid and in areas like textile manufacturing and domestic service. Over the next four years, though, a further 1.6million would join the workforce. This figure includes over 950,000 women working in munitions, many of whom would die alongside male colleagues in accidents or explosions and over 400 women - would die of chemical poisoning contracted in the factories.
And it would seem, like today, child care was a problem for women wanting to work.

The government of the day did, in fact, provide some funds for day nurseries - more than 100 across the country - but only for munitions workers. For the rest it was generally a case of having to rely on friends and families.

Things are a lot better today - we are providing as much help as possible and removing barriers that prevent women from working, this is not just important for families, it's crucial for business and the economy too.

From 2015 we are introducing tax free childcare which will save a working family up to £1,200 per child per year. We're also funding 15 hours a week of free childcare for disadvantaged 2 year olds and 15 hours a week of free childcare for all three- and four-year-olds.

Back then women had to work but today we're seeing women achieve so much more. We're seeing 68,000 more women in self-employment, compared to a year ago. Women are now sitting on the boards of our most successful companies too. The latest figures now stand at 20.4% of women on the boards of the FTSE 100 companies, up from 12.5% in 2011.

The contribution of women in all walks of life is not always valued or recognised as it should be. As we approach the FWW centenary, it is a good time to both reflect on how far we've come, and challenge the unfairness and prejudice that can still stop women making the most of their potential.

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