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The Airy Fairy Generalisations of Women in the Workplace

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There's an awful lot of nonsense spoken and written about women and employment. Airy generalisations slug it out with specious stereotyping and the simple reality gets lost in the clatter. Because the truth is, that women are at the heart of this country's economic growth strategy. And if we're serious about recovery - and we are - we must to do everything possible to maximise their contribution to the workplace.

But, although there are more women in work than ever before, there are still real barriers to women entering and progressing in work. And this is not just about focusing on boardrooms, and encouraging more female faces there. It's just as important to work on how things are in everyday families, and what women are doing to balance their financial needs and career aspirations with family life.

Whenever women get together to talk about the prospect of going back to work after having had a baby, it's a fair bet that the one worry that unites them all, regardless of their background or circumstances, will be a single question: what am I going to do about childcare?

And I stress the first person singular in this because, for all the advances that have taken place in modern relationships, this remains one question that pretty well always falls to the mother to resolve. And if it's not sorted out to the mother's satisfaction, then it very often becomes a show-stopper for the whole return to work issue. If a mother can't be as close to 100 per cent sure that her child is safe and well cared for, her chances of working effectively can dwindle to nothing.

And for every woman - and there are far too many, I fear - that ends up abandoning the world of work because there are just no childcare options available, other than mum staying at home, there can all too often be another missed opportunity for personal fulfilment. Which is not to denigrate or dismiss stay-at-home mums. It's having the choice that makes the difference. And it's not having the choice that stifles ambition.

So a big priority for me as Secretary of State in the government with responsibility for women and equality, has been to see what can be done to address this. I'm beginning with a new £2 million scheme to provide grants to help people wanting to set up a nursery or child-minding business in England. From next April, grants of up to £500 will be available to help cover things like legal and insurance costs, training, equipment and adaptations to premises.

This could lead to as many as 6,000 more childcare businesses getting off the ground. And this could be an especially neat win-win, because the businesses themselves will provide jobs themselves, as well as helping to get their clients back to work. And the great majority of the new jobs created in the sector will, on past experience, go to women.

Another thing I like about this kind of solution is that it goes with the grain of how people - and not just women - prefer to operate. There's no compulsion in it, no externally imposed requirement that puts a burden on businesses which, in many cases, are finding it hard simply to keep their heads above water. The grants will complement people's drive and initiative as they set up childcare businesses, and help provide a genuine and much-needed service for employees and employers alike.

But the wider point here, as I said at the beginning of this piece, is to do with the position that women occupy in our society as a whole and in the workplace in particular. We're serious about this and our childcare business grant initiative comes on top of a package of measures that the Government is taking forward to boost childcare, including extending the right to request flexible working to all employees and allowing parents to share up to a year's leave to care for their new born child.

So we're on the way to creating the conditions in which a truly fair and equal society can exist. There's much still to do, and I can't wait to get on with it.