The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1991Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech at the Launch of Opportunity 2000 – 28 October 1991

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech at the launch of Opportunity 2000, held at Lancaster House in London on Monday 28th October 1991.


Elspeth, thank you very much indeed. Perhaps I might begin by congratulating you, Jane Kershaw, Karen James and Business in the Community for the tremendous amount of work that has been done both to start this initiative and put together today’s events. I think it is very attractive that it has happened, it is very necessary and I am delighted to be here today to play a small part in the launch of Opportunity 2000.

It is an initiative that I welcome and I think it is also an initiative that is probably well overdue and it is undoubtedly one of the boldest corporate equal opportunities initiatives that we have yet seen. In my judgment it will catch the tide of public opinion.

What I would like to do today is to focus primarily on the central point, what Opportunity 2000 employers are doing to remove the barriers that make it harder for women to realise their full potential. And on this particular issue I do so, like so many of you, as an employer. Because the office for the Minister of the Civil Service has signed up as the umbrella organisation for the whole Civil Service. So I hope today I am in a position, perhaps a unique position, of talking to you as one employer to another.

I believe that there are several valuable aspects to the Opportunity 2000 approach. Firstly, it recognises most crucially the frequent subtlety of the barriers facing women, not all of those are evident. It gives line managers a direct interest in overcoming them and it allows each organisation to set its own goals for progress in the light of its starting position. They are very valuable aspects for the Opportunity 2000 approach.

At present there is a social revolution going on in the role of women in our society, one does not have to be an expert on it to be aware of that, one can perceive it even with a casual glance. And it is happening, frankly, whether men like it or not, it will go on happening, nothing will stop it and I believe that nothing will slow it.

And not only is this revolution right socially, I believe that it is right economically as well. So for business there are strong arguments for capitalising on the revolution, for getting a far larger return on the resources invested in the training of women during their education and at the start of their career.

But even apart from that clear cut point on the economics, there is a yet stronger argument for accepting that the change in the role of women is fundamentally right and it really can be set out quite clearly in a simple question: why should half of our population go through life like a hobbled horse in a steeplechase? The answer of course is that they should not and increasingly they will not.

Things are changing. Perhaps in our impatience to see further action we sometimes overlook some of the changes that have occurred in recent years. But within living memory women were largely excluded from higher education and the professions. And it is truly astonishing to recall that it was only after the Second world War that women did not have to resign from the Civil Service when they got married and today women and men are entering higher education and many professions in equal numbers.

And within living memory also women were banned from voting or holding elected office. Now we have had a women holding the highest elected office, we have six women Ministers of State in the government, a number poised just outside the Cabinet. And to build on that I would certainly like to see far more women entering the House of Commons as Members of Parliament. All the main parties are tending to choose more women candidates, I am glad to say my Party has an extremely good list of them, including my own Political Secretary, Judith Chaplin, in Newbury. But the fact is we still do not have enough and I would like more and I hope we will see more.

But welcome though that is, it really is not just a question of women becoming judges, Members of Parliament, boardroom chairmen, Permanent Secretaries or senior consultants. The truth is only a few men actually do that. The really important developments are that women now constitute nearly half the labour force and are expected to account for virtually all the growth in numbers employed in the coming decade. And while many women choose to stay at home while their children are very small, two-thirds of mothers are in paid employment and it is this group above all who must be allowed to realise their full potential.

So I want to see all women having the same opportunities as men. We do want more women in top posts and I shall have something to announce about that in a moment. But it is just as important, perhaps in many ways more important, that the average woman should have the same scope for development and fulfilment at work as the average man has enjoyed for many years.

What we need is a twin track approach. Enabling women to get to the top must go hand in hand with enriching women’s job opportunities on every rung of the ladder. And that needs to be done anyway to provide a supply of able candidates for top jobs. No-one wants tokenism, least of all in my experience women themselves at work competing not wholly on equal terms with men.

We are getting over the hurdle of the first prejudice, we have moved a long way from the rigid stereotyping which used to dominate thinking and I recall the Victorian writer, Elise Acton, who wanted to write poetry but was told by her publisher to write a cookery book instead. Well tell that to Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Agatha Christie, PD James or, come to think of it, Jilly Cooper. And on the subject of cooking they might tell it to Anton Mossiman as well and see what he would have to say.

So more recently, provided women are prepared and able to work as men traditionally have – and the key point is, are able to work – they should now be able to progress as men progress in the same field. But this is of course a big provided. It glosses over the main difference between the opportunities open to men and those open to women. Relatively few men think that combining career, marriage and children will involve choices or pose dilemmas. But for women these three simple human ambitions are still very hard to combine.

And that is the problem that we must tackle today and which Opportunity 2000 addresses. And it is above all about changing attitudes. The time has come to ask why women should need to be prepared to conform to traditional working practices. Why can’t work be organised on a part-time basis with or without job sharing? Why can’t career breaks be recognised as something positive from which people might actually gain in terms of effectiveness and fresh thinking?

The problems of working women are emphatically not a minority issue. Every day millions and millions of women cope with combined job and family responsibilities, including responsibilities frequently for elderly relatives as well as for children. And although those responsibilities can affect men, the truth is that to date it is mainly women who have to juggle job and family responsibilities.

We increasingly need to come to terms with these facts. And I am delighted that the employers participating in Project 2000 have done so. I hope as a result of their efforts that many more employers will follow suit. Because it is the forward thinkers who have noticed the social revolution in the role of women and who are planning their future development accordingly and it is I believe in their own self-interest to do so.

But the Government, too, has a role in encouraging voluntary action by employers. Michael Howard, the Employment Secretary, recently launched “The Best of Both Worlds”, a book that aimed at making employers aware of the benefits of flexible working arrangements for them and for their staff and he also launched a 10-point plan for equal opportunities which emphasises the need for employers to develop their own action plans and to set challenging, achievable objectives for the recruitment and the development of women

So one might ask: what are the employers in “Opportunity 2000” actually doing apart from the crucial first step of alerting male managers to the fact that barriers exist?

What they are doing is to undertake a range of measures designed to remove the barriers which stand in women’s way and they are going to do this in measurable ways:

Some companies are committing themselves to increase the management development and training opportunities for women employees; others are setting managerial targets for the number of women in key areas; and yet others are raising board-level consciousness and are running training programmes on women’s development and on equal opportunities because women are an asset which employers frankly cannot afford to waste and recognition of that is the key to greater opportunity for women and it is as hardheaded as that. A modern economy demands an increasingly skilled workforce, training costs money and it is not only formal training which is an asset; anyone doing a job of work gains valuable experience and skills and employers will want to get the best possible return on all that investment. And yet, if they are going to do that, they will need to offer retraining to women who want to come back after a career break; they will want to ensure that women who do come back don’t face disincentives such as loss of seniority or restricted prospects and they will want also, as I indicated a moment or so ago, to offer flexible [inaudible] I said earlier that I thought we were breaking down the first hurdle of prejudice – the assumption that women simply could not cope with the most demanding of jobs – and I believe it is true that we are breaking down that prejudice but there is still a variant of this hurdle about: “That’s not a woman’s job!” is what you hear people say and nowadays, the reasons given seldom have anything to do with brains; more often, they have to do with brawn or the assumed unpleasantness of the job but in truth, that is really a choice surely for the women who want those jobs to make. What is said is no more than a kind of restrictive practice. Sometimes male managers and male employers like their cosy male world; they see the arrival of female employees as a threat or as a bore and in that I believe they are wrong.

As I come from Government, you may well ask what the Government is doing about the social revolution. I could read out our record, I could point to the introduction of independent taxation which for the first time gave married women an existence in law as taxpaying individuals; I could point to the abolition of composite rate tax which helped above all, non-taxpaying wives in particular; I could point to the indexation of child benefit; I could point to the limited extension of tax relief to the provision of workplace nurseries; but instead, I want to highlight four things relevant to today’s launch:

Firstly, Government must highlight the values of a society. It is no use my saying we want women to have more opportunity, including opportunity to get to the top, if the top of everything is dominated by men and it will take time to change this but there is something that the Government can do right away and I am intending to do it. I am determined to see an increase in the proportion of women holding senior public appointments; 23 percent, the level reached last year, is simply not good enough so I am asking my Cabinet colleagues – at the moment men but nothing is for ever! [Laughter] – to take a close personal interest in this. A Minister in each and every Department will be personally responsible; they will expect to see women on every short list for public appointment or to be given good reasons for the absence of women candidates and I shall want to review progress personally in a year’s time. The Women’s National Commission is supporting this initiative by advising women of the opportunities available, the experience required and how best to present their experience and qualifications and I hops that women will come forward for these jobs.

In some other areas, we will have to wait for the pool of female middle management to become large enough to supply a stream of candidates for the top jobs but thousands – literally thousands of women – are already equipped to serve the public with distinction in positions of responsibility; it is just a matter of finding them and making sure that their chances of an appointment are quite as good as those of a man.

Secondly, Angela Rumbold, who is here this morning, who chairs our Ministers Group on Women’s Issues, reports direct to the Home Secretary. I have asked them both to report regularly and directly to me in future and I have done so because the problems faced by women cannot be confined within the remit of a single Department; they transcend most if not all the Departments of State and we recognise that.

The group which Angela chairs is helping to develop an effective and integrated approach to the concerns and needs of women and increasingly, all policy-makers without exception are being required to consider the impact of their policies on women before they are put in place.

But one point I think is self-evident: the Government cannot know the concerns of most women without a continuing dialogue, so the third thing I want to tell you about is Angela Rumbold’s new network initiative. This will involve tapping the views of women all over the country; it has just got under way. Angela wants to listen; she will then report and we want to make sure that Government actions are really relevant to all women and if you want to take part, whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever your interests art, then contact Angela Rumbold at the Home Office and she will be delighted to hear what you have to say.

Fourthly is the Government’s commitment to “Opportunity 2000”. We are entirely behind this project and as I have said, we are a participant in this project. The Government itself is a very large employer of women; 48 percent of the Civil Service are women; another Government-funded organisation, the National Health Service – and it will remain a Government-funded organisation – [Laughter] is the largest employer of women in Europe. The Civil Service has had a long and admirable policy as far as equal pay and the more formal kinds of equal opportunity are concerned; it can rightly be proud of having led in this area but the proportion of women in senior positions in the Civil Service while better than the proportion of women in comparable jobs in the private sector, is still too small. In large part, this is because women have children and rightly want career breaks and flexible hours to look after them. It is only in the last decade that as an employer the Government has really begun to tackle this issue. We launched a specific programme of action in 1984 and since then we have seen a decrease in women’s resignation rates, a trebling of the proportion of women working part-time and more women in management grades and we plan to launch a new programme for action in the spring to carry this forward.

In the National Health Service as well, we are making good progress. Virginia Bottomley has been particularly active in this area and I am delighted that the National Health Service has just won an award from the International Women’s Forum for the corporation which has “made the most difference for its women employees”.

The twin-track approach that I mentioned earlier is particularly important in the National Health Service. The nursing profession is overwhelmingly female and half of all students entering medical school and 85 percent of National Health Service administrators are women. But there still is a gap; we still need to see more women consultants, hospital and health authority managers – there are still not remotely enough of them – and we need also to provide satisfying jobs with reasonable prospects at every level and it is particularly important for trained nurses to be able to come back to nursing posts which recognise their experience after for one reason or another they may have had a career break.

Since 1986, the National Health Service has taken a number of incentives to improve prospects for its women employees. These are designed to retain skilled and experienced staff and to provide more opportunities for advancement and some of these initiatives and incentives are very worthwhile. Most health authorities are developing flexible working arrangements; nearly half of all health authorities provide nursery facilities, some run in partnership with private sector employers; and new provisions on maternity leave and pay in the National Health Service are among the best in the country.

I very much welcome the fact that several Government Departments and the National Health Service have already signed up as “Opportunity 2000′ employers. Other Departments and Agencies in the tradition of the Civil Service are considering doing so; from the centre, we will encourage them to do so, to consider quickly, to decide correctly and to jump in.

I have made clear, Madam Chairman, my own belief in the importance of opportunity. Opportunity is one of the greatest gifts that we can give our children but opportunity must be sustained. It isn’t a once and for all opportunity at one stage in your life that you need; it is continuing opportunities at all stages of your life that is actually relevant if we are to maximise the opportunities for people of all ages and both sexes in our society. It is frankly no use equipping boys and girls in equal numbers to take advantage of opportunities and then allowing multiple barriers to check the progress of girls as they become women and there is, it seems to me, something very odd indeed about allowing those who look after children to suffer lifelong disadvantage for doing so when all of us believe that that should not happen.

So we are committed to changing as much of this as we can as speedily as we can. This Government is committed to widening opportunities and ensuring more of them are available to women and it is committed to encouraging enlightened employers to look to their own self-interest and promote better opportunities for their own growing workforce. That is what I expect to see in the years to come, that is what I hope to see in the years to come, that is what we will be encouraging people to do in the years to come and that is why so very much I welcome “Opportunity 2000” and wish you every success. [Applause]