Women are a key source of untapped potential which we need to harness to boost economic growth in the UK.”

Cilla Snowball, CBE (Chair)


The WBC approach

The Women’s Business Council is an independent, one-year working group that was set up by the Government in 2012 with the aim of ensuring real action by Government, business and others to maximise women’s contribution to economic growth.

Its members are all business people working in a range of sectors – including advertising, recruitment, enterprise, retail, legal, financial and pharmaceutical – who have been brought together to drive this agenda forward. What we have in common is experience in business and commitment to equal opportunities for women.

We see the tangible business benefits that come from ensuring that women enjoy the same opportunities for meaningful work and career development as men.

Our approach was governed by a focus on how to maximise economic growth. We wanted to make a set of recommendations that not only spoke to the current context, but were strategic and had longevity. For this reason we took a snapshot in time of the current barriers faced by women throughout their working lives and sought to make recommendations which would not only improve the situation now, but would have a legacy, ensuring that in ten years’ time our current cohort of girls and young women will not be stuck in the same place facing the same issues.

We reviewed the lifecycle of women and work, focusing on common experiences at each stage of life and the key transitions where potential is lost.

In Starting out, we consider education and the transition into work. It is clear that, whilst girls are out-performing boys in academic achievement, they are still much less likely to choose the subjects that lead to higher earnings in later life. By providing better careers advice and information, work experience and ‘job-ready’ skills (that aren’t hampered by gender stereotypes) we will improve the talent pool in the UK labour market. Also, by increasing the supply of interested and able young people in areas where there are skills shortages and projected future demand for jobs (particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM subjects), we will improve the competitiveness of British business.

Getting on – the middle phase of women’s careers – is identified as an area where potential and experience is often lost, especially as women combine childcare and work. By changing workplace culture and improving good practice in working arrangements to give some degree of flexibility on how long, where and when employees work, providing help with childcare costs, and better management of the talent pipeline, we can minimise the costs to the economy of losing the talents and skills of so many women from working life.

In Staying on, we consider the mid-late career stage, and make recommendations to ensure that the talent and skills of women are not lost due to caring responsibilities or the changing labour market.

We also include a chapter on Enterprise, which should be seen as an option for more women of all ages. The UK needs to develop a dynamic entrepreneurial culture where more people have the ambition, confidence, opportunity and skills to start and grow a business – increasing women’s participation is vital to creating a strong entrepreneurial economy.

Why are women important for economic growth?

Over the last 40 years, the benefits from increased participation of women in economic activity, in terms of financial independence, personal development and social status, have become increasingly clear and accepted. In our companies, we see the tangible business benefits that come from ensuring that women enjoy the same opportunities for meaningful work and career development as men.

Equalising economic participation rates could add 10% to the economy by 2030.+10%

This report takes as its starting point the view from the other end of the telescope: that while women need work, work also needs women. There is enormous untapped potential in the female population which would support growth. Over the past 50 years, the increased participation of women in education and the labour market has been a significant contributor to the economy. By equalising the labour force participation rates of men and women, the UK could further increase GDP per capita growth by 0.5 percentage points per year, with potential gains of 10% of GDP by 20301. We need to address this mismatch to unlock women’s contribution for the UK to optimise its economic potential.

To ensure we are fully utilising the economic advantage offered by women, we must understand the barriers that exist to their workplace achievements. We will present the detail in succeeding chapters, but the problem can be encapsulated in a few key statistics. There are over 2.4 million women who are not in work but want to work and over 1.3 million women who want to work more hours2. There has been substantial social and economic change over the past 50 years, as more and more women have gained higher qualifications, entered into the workforce and started to break into senior positions. Yet the case remains that while girls and young women outstrip boys and men in educational attainment they are, in comparison, under-represented in many key areas. There is still a gap in employment (67% of working-age women are employed, compared to 76% of men3) and women are much more likely to be in low-paid jobs (women’s average hourly earnings are 19.7% less than men’s4). This represents a loss of investment that the UK must recoup.

Women-led SMEs already add around £70 billion to the economy.£70bn

Understanding how we can support more women to realise their potential in the workplace is just one solution to growth in a recession. But we must also look at women’s involvement in entrepreneurship – a key driver of growth5. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are critical to employment and productivity, and women-led SMEs already add around £70 billion to the economy6. However, only 19% of SMEs are majority-run by women and women are about half as likely as men to start a business7. The UK needs to encourage a dynamic entrepreneurial culture where more people have the ambition, confidence, opportunity and skills to start and grow a business: if women were setting up and running new businesses at the same rate as men, there could be 1 million more women entrepreneurs8. That’s a lot of lost potential for and input to the UK economy. Understanding how we can encourage more women to set up their own business will be vital in creating a strong entrepreneurial economy and supporting growth still further.

Supporting women to reach their potential does not just make economic sense; it is good for business too. Employers need to appoint and retain the best personnel, from the widest pool of talent. Diversity of people brings diversity of skills and experience, which in turn can deliver richer creativity, better problem solving and greater flexibility to environmental changes9. New research by PA Consulting for the Women’s Business Council found that greater gender diversity in senior management is positively correlated with high performance cultures, and this in turn is linked to improved financial performance in publicly listed companies10.

The vast majority of employers support equality in principle11. We need to translate this principle into action. Every business is different, so there is no simple ‘one size fits all’ solution for getting the best from your workforce. Compliance with legislation is the first step, but employers need to build on that, taking a strategic view on how they can maximise the opportunities of equality and what actions are best for them to deliver12. This report aims to provide the tools which will enable employers to get the best from a diverse workforce.

Women should not just try to fit in to the economy – they should be shaping the economy.

The recommendations in this report are designed to benefit the economy as a whole, and provide benefits to individuals’ businesses. But, most importantly, our recommendations will improve the lives of women across the country. We want to ensure that young girls have the right information and advice to make choices and have higher aspirations. For women who choose to have children, this should not be a choice that condemns them to second class jobs. And we want more women of all ages to have the skills and confidence to start their own business. Women should not just try to fit in to the economy – they should be shaping the economy.

Next: 1. Starting out