Penny Mordaunt, international development secretary and equalities minister
The Government Equalities Office’s migration to the Cabinet Office will be accompanied by a shift in focus towards helping low-paid women who have until been “left out of the conversation” by government, women and equalities minister Penny Mordaunt has said.
Speaking at the Bright Blue think tank today, Mordaunt, who is also the international development secretary, said the GEO would no longer concentrate on issues concerning women’s representation at the top levels of business and instead direct its efforts to help “low-paid women, low-skilled women”.
Until now, a significant portion of the GEO’s work on gender has concentrated on getting more women on company boards and tackling the gender pay gap.
Mordaunt said this was a typical example of how when Whitehall departments take on "thornier and more complex issues, it’s usually in the shape of discovering best practice, or chipping away at an issue".
The focus on women in boardrooms was "emblematic of the progress women are making", she added. "But, in truth, this is not the place where business is being re-imagined. Often poor treatment and the perception of being undervalued in the workplace is the main driver for female entrepreneurs."
She also said she wanted to stop the GEO replicating the work of other departments, pointing to the requirement brought in last year for large companies to report their gender pay gap data, as well as a push by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to make companies report their chief executive pay ratios.
The equalities unit will now focus on women in low-paid and low-skilled jobs, as well as those receiving welfare benefits that mean they are “trapped into limiting their hours or income”, Mordaunt said. The government has made much of the way the benefits system disincentivises people receiving working tax credits from taking on higher-paid work through the trade-off between the additional income and losing some of their benefits as part of the reasoning behind its Universal Credit welfare reforms.
She also said the office would target women “facing multiple barriers to being independent”, such as limited English language skills. She announced £100,000 in funding to support the government's integrated communities strategy by boosting English language among women in four designated “integrated areas”: Blackburn, Bradford, Peterborough and Waltham Forest.
Mordaunt also said £600,000 of the £5m allocated to the returners programme in last year's Spring Budget would go to help vulnerable women return to work. Under the programme, which provides funding for training and work placements for people who have taken time away from work to be carers, organisations will be able to bid for grants to support women who have faced experienced hardships such as homelessness, domestic abuse and mental health problems, she said.
“It will be our mission to ensure that every woman in the UK has as much freedom, choice, capacity, resilience, support and protection, to do whatever she wants to do,” Mordaunt said.
“To do that we need to broaden out the work of the Government Equalities Office to focus on women at every stage of their lives."
Setting out the GEO's new focus, Mordaunt pointed to figures showing that around 1.8m women are left unable to work because of caring commitments – eight times higher than the figure for men. She also highlighted that women are three times more likely than men to work part-time and are "disproportionately" represented in lower-paid caring, customer service and cleaning jobs.
Moving the unit to the Cabinet Office will give it “even more influence and leverage within government, working with the Race Disparity Unit, and the Office of Disability Issues, and others, to drive meaningful progress on equalities”, Mordaunt added.