Today is International Women's Day. From the bespoke Google Doodle and its inspiring film of women around the world setting out their ambitions for 'One day...' to the news and opinion pieces across almost every major media outlet - it's pretty hard to miss.
International Women's Day began in the early 1900s with a focus on campaigning for better pay and working conditions.
Over 100 years later, its mission has stayed true to its campaigning roots. This year it's #PledgeForParity. We're being asked to make a pledge to accelerate gender parity.
I have read some commentators who have criticised the IWD pledges as 'vague' and 'toothless.'
I disagree. We should seize on International Women's Day as a lightening rod to direct global attention towards the achievements of women around the world, and help consider how each one of us, in our professional and personal lives can make the IWD pledges matter.
There are many pledges that speak to me from rights and access to education and health care, to equal pay and representation in government. However, the pledge that speaks to me is to 'help women and girls achieve their ambitions.' Every day of my working life I see the opportunity for changes which would facilitate talented women better achieve their ambitions in business.
I am making good on my pledge to help them do this by using this platform to call for the changes I know would make a real difference:
Firstly, business needs to change the way it defines great performance. It's simply no longer viable in most households for one (male) partner to work long hours, and one (female) to stay at home. Most households could not make the financials work on one salary anyway, and the reality is that women want fulfilling, challenging work as much as men. Logically, the model has to change. Without a stay at home partner, there has to be flexibility. Business needs to acknowledge the numbers of people, male and female, who want to work flexibly and, crucially, adapt how their contribution is measured.
In my business - the law - the 'billable hour' has held sway so long it can be hard to conceive that there is a different way. But the culture of presenteeism and remuneration based on 'time-spent' is redundant. Businesses must learn to value their people on what they deliver.
For us, this approach opens up access to a world of talented, senior women who want to work at a senior level but not within a system that insists that they work a minimum of 60 hours a week, in addition to their 20 hour a week commute. The flexibility we have provided gives us a team that is self motivated and absolutely focused on delivering on the job in hand, not being seen to be seen.
All businesses must learn to value the contribution of employees who choose to work in a more efficient, flexible and balanced way.
Secondly, the Government has to act to support female entrepreneurs. Despite the huge contribution entrepreneurs make to the UK economy, the Government has yet to make some straightforward changes that would ease the path for all start-ups, but particularly those founded by women. I call on the Government to act on:
Maternity pay: Like many other female business owners supporting a family, when I had a baby I went back to work after only a few weeks. The fact that I lost all my statutory maternity pay (SMP) rights was a big issue and it will be a deterrent for many female entrepreneurs. Women need SMP irrespective of length of service and level of income and SMP should not be less than the minimum wage.
Home ownership: Women entrepreneurs will tell you that they cannot obtain a mortgage, which has a major knock on effect on family life. The system is structured to assist employees, not business owners. A track record of 2-4 years ought to be enough for lenders to consider a business owner a viable proposition.
Business finance: Banks still appear to have limited appetite to fund start-up businesses. When entrepreneurs struggle with the traditional routes of funding: banks, angels and VCs, they often have to get creative and explore crowdfunding, family or even credit cards as sources of finance. It should not be this difficult.
Saving for the future: I would like to see an entrepreneur fund, or even a choice on how we allocate our NI contributions, similar to other tax free saving funds or pension schemes that would help female business owners plan for the future - for example for a time when they take a break after having a baby.
I will continue to raise awareness of these issues as part of my own personal commitment to helping women and girls achieve their ambitions. That's what International Women's Day means to me.