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Thursday, 15 August, 2002, 08:58 GMT 09:58 UK
Hewitt's crusade for women
Woman at work
Hewitt admits that more must be done to help women

As part of a weekly series on women in business, Minister for Women and Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt answers questions from BBC News Online about equal pay, women in Westminster and her own struggle to the top.
Patricia Hewitt rose rapidly up the ministerial ladder after her election to parliament in 1997.

Patricia Hewitt
Hewitt: Success through 'luck and persistence'
But she had been an influential figure within Labour circles long before that, working closely with former leader Neil Kinnock as he attempted to reverse the party's fortunes.

Married with a son and a daughter, the 53-year-old MP for Leicester West was appointed as economic secretary in 1998 before being promoted to trade minister a year later.

And after Tony Blair's 2001 election triumph, she joined the Cabinet as trade and industry secretary and minister for women.

What can you do to make it easier for all women to juggle their careers with family commitments?

As Cabinet minister for women and as a working mother, I am committed to helping working parents juggle family and career.

Right now we're pushing through legislation which will mean that from April 2003, parents with children aged under six and those with disabled children aged under 18, will be given the legal right to ask to work flexibly.

Their employers will also have a duty to consider these requests seriously.

At the same time, the government will be increasing and extending maternity leave and pay, and introducing new rights for fathers - including the first ever paid paternity leave - and for parents who adopt.

What still needs to be done to give women equal status with men at work?

Legally, women have equal status with men at work. The Sex Discrimination Act makes it unlawful for employers to treat someone differently on account of whether they are men or women.


It is in all our interests to make it possible for women to pursue a fulfilling career within better-paid and higher-status jobs

Yet women are still more often found in low-status, low-paid jobs with little opportunity for career development and can find it harder to get promotion than men.

The government has taken a number of steps to help women overcome barriers at work.

For example, the Part-time Workers Directive for the first time gives part-time workers equal access to pension rights and training with full-time workers.

The Work-Life Balance Campaign is opening up opportunities to work flexibly, allowing women and men to find ways to balance family life with better jobs.

We are also supporting a range of initiatives to increase the number of women in the relatively highly paid sectors of science, engineering and technology, where women remain under-represented.

What are you doing to help more women reach senior management positions?

I am determined to do what I can to increase the representation of women at every level at work, and in public life.

Chancellor Gordon Brown on Budget day
Hewitt first worked as a minister for Gordon Brown
A number of government policies (as mentioned above) will help women to reach senior management positions.

I am also leading our campaign to increase the number of women in national public appointments from its current level of 34% to 50% by the year 2005.

It is in all our interests to make it possible for women to pursue a fulfilling career within better-paid and higher-status jobs while at the same time balancing domestic responsibilities.

Women make up half the workforce and in a modern, productive society, flexible-working arrangements should not be seen as a luxury, but an economic necessity.

Can you see a day when equal pay for men and women is a reality?

Equal pay is already a statutory requirement and has been since 1975 but clearly there is still some way to go before we have a level playing field.

Nurse
'Some way to go' for level playing field
That is why we are working with business to focus on making sure that the current legislation is implemented as effectively as possible and strengthened with new initiatives and good practice.

We are encouraging companies to undertake voluntary pay audits and are 100% committed to getting our own house in order too.

Why doesn't the government want to make it mandatory for companies to audit their pay systems?

We believe that the best way to achieve lasting change is through working alongside the business community and encouraging a voluntary approach.

We are already working with business, employers, trade unions and the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) to promote equal pay reviews.

It is important for employers to undertake pay reviews carefully and sensitively, which confirms the benefits of the voluntary approach.

What happens if a voluntary approach doesn't work?

We are confident that our current approach has already reaped rewards and together with other government-sponsored initiatives will continue to do so.


We want Parliament to reflect modern Britain where both men and women are breadwinners and active parents

We will continue to work with businesses, trade unions and other stakeholders, and assess our progress regularly to build on the experience of successful equal pay initiatives.

What have you done to improve conditions for women in Parliament and the Civil Service?

We want Parliament to reflect modern Britain where both men and women are breadwinners and active parents.

The House of Commons Modernisation Committee is looking at a range of proposals for reform.

Women MPs with Prime Minister Tony Blair
Labour has introduced steps to increase the number of women MPs
I personally favour proposals for more rational sitting hours for Parliament, so that key decisions are not being taken at 10 o'clock at night.

I also want to work towards modernising the Civil Service and help more talented women and under-represented ethnic minorities, win promotion to higher grades.

We've made progress since 1998 and the number of female senior civil servants has risen from 18% to 25%.

But there is still some way to go and we must keep the pressure on if we are to meet a target of 35% by 2005.

Can you see a day when there will be equal numbers of male and female MPs?

I believe that government, in order to be truly representative, needs to be inclusive of all parts of society and given that women make up half the population, increasing the number of women MPs is vital to democracy.


I've rarely made enough time for my husband and I still wish that I'd succeeded in working part-time when our children were little

The Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act, which received Royal Assent on 26 February this year, was an important step forward.

The Act allows political parties - if they so wish - to take positive action to increase the number of women elected to political office at every level - local, regional national and European.

I'm very pleased that in my own party, the National Executive Committee recently voted in favour of positive action.

This means that in half of the most winnable seats in those regions where less than 35% of MPs are women, there will be all-women shortlists.

How can more women be encouraged to stand for election to Parliament?

Alongside increasing the number of women candidates seeking selection in winnable seats, it is essential to do what we can to create a positive political climate that attracts women.

Right now too many women look at Parliament and see a male-dominated, rather archaic environment, which has no connection to their daily lives.

That's why this government has put energy and resources into changing the way we do politics in Parliament.

What barriers did you face in your own career, both outside and inside Parliament?

I've been extremely lucky in being able to find opportunities throughout my working life.

The most difficult step was finding my first job after I left university, when I faced unemployment for the first time (the second was after losing the 1983 election).

How do you think you have got to where you are today?

Luck, persistence, hard work and always knowing that I wanted to make a difference through my work as well as my politics.

Did you make any sacrifices along the way?

The most difficult thing has been trying to balance work and family life - and often failing.

I've rarely made enough time for my husband and I still wish that I'd succeeded in working part-time when our children were little.


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See also:

15 Aug 02 | Business
08 Mar 02 | Business
13 Aug 01 | Business
20 Dec 01 | Business
02 May 02 | Business
17 Oct 01 | Politics
06 May 01 | Politics
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