01/07/2013 13:26 BST | Updated 31/08/2013 06:12 BST

Women Must Be at the Heart of Our Efforts to Create Employment and Grow Our Economy

Last week, Francis Maude and I hosted a networking event in Whitehall to encourage more senior women to take up roles on public boards, following a report published by the Cabinet Office. The report revealed that 37% of new public appointments made by Whitehall departments in 2012 to 2013 were women. This is the first year that the government has published its own statistics on the gender diversity of public appointments, and these figures are set against an aspiration that 50% of new public appointments be female by 2015.

I have been part of many debates on gender diversity in corporate boardrooms. Although there is a long road ahead, one small step in the right direction is that the issue is now more firmly fixed in the minds of shareholders, employers and employees. And I hope events like last week will be a catalyst for greater interest and awareness of our public boards and equal appointments to them. It's a promising start that number of women taking up public appointments is increasing across Whitehall.

Just like the private sector, public sector bodies have boards to oversee their activities and steer their future direction. And just like the private sector, promoting diversity and the appointment of women to these boards has been slow to improve. As the recent Women's Business Council report made clear, women must be at the heart of our efforts to create employment and grow our economy. This must extend to roles in public life. It's not about political correctness - it's about good business sense.

I have a particular interest in this issue as my Department sponsors 43 public bodies with more than 450 public appointments - one of the largest crops in Whitehall, overseeing sectors where Britain is truly world-leading: arts, culture, sports and heritage.

These 43 bodies receive more than of two billion pounds of Government money. They contribute around 12% of the UK's economic output and about 15% of employment - more than the financial services sector.

But these boards cannot be truly representative of their industries if they do not reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. That's why the Government is aiming to ensure that half of all new public appointments by 2015 be women. For this to happen without a divisive system of quotas, we need to be better at advertising these roles and encouraging more women to apply.

One area where I am especially keen to see progress is in the sports sector. Both Sport England and many sporting Governing Bodies will be recruiting new board members in the next 18 months and our expectation is that by 2017, at least a quarter of board members on National Governing Bodies will be female.

These boards want and need to attract fresh talent from outside their own sector. An interest in and understanding of sport is important - but expertise is not. So, even if you only have a limited or occasional interest in sport, I am encouraging women to think about how their skills and experience could help increase sports participation, and help develop our next generation of champions.

We are seeing progress. Women made up 38% of new appointments in my Department last year, up from 31% the previous year. But that still isn't good enough. We need a broader spectrum of candidates to put themselves forward. I am extremely pleased that the Chair of the Women's Business Council, Ruby McGregor-Smith, is now taking up a role as a Director on the Board for my Department, bringing the experience she has gained in the commercial world.

The positions on offer provide fantastic, fulfilling and high-profile opportunities to make a contribution to the country, to our public services and to our economy as well as a way to broaden skills and develop careers. I would urge women out there to put yourselves forward whatever your background - we want to hear from you.

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