The government has not ruled out introducing a quota system that would force firms to employ more women at senior level.
Speaking at the Treasury select committee Women in the City inquiry, women’s minister Harriett Harman refused to rule out the introduction of Norwegian-style quota systems where women must comprise 40% of company boards.
When asked specifically at what stage these quotas could be introduced in the UK, Harman said: “I think the starting point should be that we have to have change, and therefore we will be making progress along with the Equality Bill and the work with the CBI. And then if that doesn’t deliver the change then you obviously have to look at further steps, if you believe these objectives are important, which we do.”
But she added it was not a government proposal “at this point”.
Harman also rejected committee claims that employers faced a trade-off between flexible working and profits. She said organisations offering flexible working opportunities could share in a larger talent pool, and she called for more flexible working to enable women to progress in organisations.
She added the introduction of gender pay gap reporting would highlight companies that were not doing enough to offer flexible working opportunities, as women would remain in lower paid jobs.
Also giving evidence, Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), told MPs that improving gender equality in financial services firms meant “active steps” had to be taken now, and should be focused on new entrants into the sector.
An EHRC report found 86% of women were earning less on entry into financial services. He said: “Discrimination started on day one; we have to take active steps to tackle this. The place to start is the point where people enter.”
Phillips insisted a cultural change was needed in the sector, and that fixing the age structure in financial services – where preferential hiring and promotion took place between the ages of 25 and 39 – would do a lot to help women progress.
He added many companies in the financial sector have “not yet mastered dealing with pregnancy”.