Bishop of London speaks in debate to mark international women’s day

The Bishop of London took part in a debate to mark International Women’s Day on 10th March 2023, speaking about the role of women in the Church of England and in healthcare and nursing:

The Lord Bishop of London: My Lords, it is wonderful to be able to participate in this year’s International Women’s Day debate alongside such inspirational women. It is an honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay.

I was recently fortunate to have a participant from the Jo Cox Women in Leadership Programme spend a day with me and the Bishop of Stepney as we visited the Stepney area, which is part of the diocese of London. The House may know that the programme was set up in Jo’s memory and in recognition of her leadership and the empowerment of many women. I commend the programme and its recognition of the need for women leaders to spend their time with other women leaders.

The participant and I have very different backgrounds and experiences, but I was struck by the overlapping challenges that we face. Over my life, I have found that many of those challenges are common to women working across different areas. That has certainly been true of the worlds that I have worked in: the NHS, higher education, the Church and government. I was the youngest woman to be appointed the Government’s Chief Nursing Officer in England, the fourth woman to be ordained a bishop in the Church of England and the first Bishop of London to be a woman. By virtue of that position, I find myself among the 28% in the House of Lords who are women. Yet, across all these spaces, there are common challenges, which persist. Often, they have their root in our education system. In spite of growing female representation in leadership and the widely enshrined equality in key legislation, the job is not done.

Nursing has historically been seen as a female profession, with an ongoing perception that care is a female characteristic. The Royal College of Nursing believes that this has contributed to the suppression of wages and the downgrading of working conditions, which are fuelling current workforce issues. Worldwide, the World Health Organization found that, on average, female healthcare workers earn approximately 20% less than their male counterparts—at worst, that figure is 24%.

As I have already mentioned in this place, in 2019 a report by the Royal College of Nursing and the Office for National Statistics found that in the UK women make up 90% of all nurses but fill less than a third of senior positions. It is paradoxical that nursing could be perceived as a female profession yet not enough for women to hold even half of senior positions.

There is much to say about the way in which the composition of senior staff in health impacts health outcomes for those more likely to experience poor health. I have spoken in this place before about the statistic that in the UK black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. There are ongoing issues with the lack of GMH midwives and senior staff in the midwifery sector, including stereotyping of pregnant women, pregnant women not being listened to, a lack of awareness of rights, inconsistency in the allocation of finances and a lack of cultural competency within the service.

Not only is working for greater representation in senior positions good for those holding them but it encourages and develops a more diverse workforce and informs a way of working that produces better outcomes. In nursing, the job is not done.

In the Church of England, women have been ordained to the priesthood only since 1994, and the decision to allow women to be consecrated as bishops came only in 2014. In 2015, Libby Lane, now the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby, was consecrated and installed as the Bishop of Stockport in the diocese of Chester, becoming our first female bishop. Last month, I had the joy of welcoming Emma Ineson as the Bishop of Kensington in the diocese of London. It was a momentous day, as Emma is the first female Bishop of Kensington. It is easy to miss the impact that this has not just on the Church but on the wider community. A leader from the Sikh community, a long-standing friend of the Hounslow Deanery, expressed her delight and encouragement at seeing two women bishops in the same room. The truth is that it is still not a common sight, despite the experience of your Lordships’ House.

I often underestimate the impact of my role in visiting girls and young women in schools. They do not all want to be the Bishop of London, but the sight of a woman in a senior leadership position is significant and does not pass them by, and maybe enables them to be slightly closer to their dreams.

The proportion of the Church-stipended or paid clergy in London who are women is still only around 20%. The Church also has more to do; the job is not done.

Many think that this is about helping women to be more confident, and that is not wrong. However, we need to change our schools, universities and workplaces to become spaces where women can thrive. So many of those spaces have been shaped by one gender for decades and sometimes centuries. How can we be dynamic and effective if we do not change the shape of our organisations to embrace and learn from people of difference? It will mean that we do not change women in leadership.

Of course, this is not just about women. This is an intersectionality of which I do not have a full understanding. There are greater diversities that I have not touched on which must be fundamental to our attempts to embrace equality. However, that day in the Stepney area and this day in your Lordships’ House are steps towards change. To be holding a debate of this nature, tone and celebration in this House is, I am sure, a day that many of our predecessors would never have believed could happen. It is a joy to participate.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Cumberlege (Con): My Lords, it is a great challenge to follow the inspiration of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London. We can easily see why she is the Bishop of London. I thank her for a marvellous talk.

The right reverend Prelate challenged nurses to take on bigger, more important roles. I hope that they are listening, because in my career I have met so many inspiring nurses, wonderful people, who have been rather buried in their careers and have not succeeded as I hoped they would.

Baroness Bennet of Manor Castle (GP): My Lords, it is a great pleasure to take part in today’s debate, back in its appropriate place in the Chamber, and such a wonderful debate it has been. I particularly note the contribution of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, stressing how women’s professional contributions in care have been consistently under-recognised and undervalued because of gender.

Baroness Barran (Con): The noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, raised the point about women returning to the workforce. We are funding a new returners programme to help women back into these industries. We are also launching a women-led high-growth enterprise task force to increase the number of women starting high-growth and cutting-edge businesses, which is one element of building the leadership pipeline that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London referred to.

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