Today, the Business, Innovation and Skills committee publishes the report of our inquiry into Women in the Workplace.
I hope the Government will not just listen but actively take on board the committee's recommendations of how to best enable women to fulfil their true potential, starting in school, through university or other training and into the workplace.
The theme of un-tapped talent runs through the report. As Adrian Bailey MP, our committee chair, said during the inquiry, "60% of graduates are women - that represents a huge public investment in women's education. If we are not obtaining the dividend that comes from that investment, that really does require a comprehensive examination in what changes need to be made in government regulation and in the way business operates in order to fulfil that potential."
The Government-appointed Women's Business Council shares our concern. Their report released earlier this month was headlined with the shocking statistic that 2.4 million women currently don't work but would like to. In April, the Fawcett Society's review into the prospects for women in the labour market drew pessimistic conclusions, noting that the UK risked becoming a "female unfriendly" job market in the near future.
This is a complex problem with multiple variables. Here I will focus on just one: the need for genuinely flexible jobs at all levels of seniority, from entry level positions to senior management.
Whether it's accommodating a mother's need to collect her children from school, or creating a job share for a senior manager with care responsibilities, there are multiple ways that flexibility can be incorporated into work. Our committee took evidence from a female senior civil servant who had worked in a job-share for many years, even reporting higher productivity as a result.
We heard from a senior executive at a bank which had integrated a flexible working approach to its entire business, from top management down. The bank remained highly successful and the executive spoke of the loyalty she and her colleagues felt for the organisation because of its forward-thinking approach.
Yet many women still report being passed over for jobs if they don't fit the full-time, nine to five mould. This kind of rigidity not only turns a blind eye to the responsibilities of ordinary women; it also contributes to the wasteful inactivity of so many who desperately want to return to work. The economic costs of these small barriers are considerable.
Women still shoulder the majority of the care burden in families, both for children and for elderly relatives. That means they remain at a disadvantage in the workplace if employers fail to take notice of their added responsibilities. Family-friendly policies needn't be hard to implement. Small businesses, reliant on a smaller workforce, often display admirable flexibility in their relations with staff. Larger employers, both public and private, should follow suit and Government should make much greater effort to promote this change with their own staff.
Critics will point out that not every job can be made flexible, and they are right. Even if every job could be made flexible or part-time, the current downward pressure on wages would not make this a viable choice for all. But with 29.7 million jobs in services - 83% of the UK economy - there is huge scope for the lawyers, bankers, analysts, administrators, consultants and researchers of our country to embrace the benefits that a flexible approach to work can bring. Technological advances, from Skype to cloud computing, mean that other approaches such as remote working can be explored.
The Government Equalities Office should highlight good practice in relation to flexible and part-time work, commending those organisations offering the best examples. Ministers in the Business Department and the Home Office should also single out the "return to work" experience of mothers as a key area of Government priority in equalities policy and press for sustained change. It simply shouldn't be the case that many women can only find work far below the skill level of the jobs they left before having children.
Part-time work at the senior management level remains rare, with only 6.5% of part-timers falling into the managerial category. Yet the demands for good quality part-time jobs is high. We should push for a greater professionalization of part-time work, in which part-timers are given the full range of training and promotion opportunities as full-timers. Again, the Government Equalities Office should highlight the organisations which succeed in creating good quality part-time jobs so other employers can emulate them.
Equality is a good in itself but, as the committee's report says, ensuring that women have the opportunity to realise their maximum potential is as much an economic argument as one about equality. That should be enough to convince all sides that change is needed. Employers should seize the opportunity to create family-friendly policies that attract and retain good staff. If implemented correctly, these measures will not slow down or burden companies. On the contrary, flexible employment policies foster loyalty, reduce staff turnover and boost employee morale. And that must be good for business as well as for women.