Supporting women's rights is essential, says Theresa May

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Theresa May has said it is "essential" that women's rights are supported as she addressed an International Women's Day reception in Downing Street.

The Prime Minister heralded the steps made towards equality, but claimed that there was "still more to do".

She said: "When a girl is safe, healthy and educated, when society values her as an equal, and when she has control over her own body and decisions... When she can choose when and how many children to have, where she has the information and support and resources to earn a decent income - women and girls thrive, poverty is reduced, society is more stable and everyone benefits.

"Let me be clear: addressing gender equality and supporting women's rights is not a nice-to-have, it's essential."

Mrs May told the women and men from a range of sectors at the reception inside Number 10 that the country had "made some huge progress in recent years" tackling gender equality, and now has "more women on the boards of our biggest companies, more women in Parliament, more girls taking science, technology, engineering and maths". 

However she confessed that despite taking Physics and Maths A-levels, she was left feeling "very frightened" by the whiteboards on a recent visit to King's College London Mathematical School.

"We've now got the lowest gender pay gap on record and more women in work than ever before, but of course, while it's right to celebrate those achievements, there is still more to do."

She said the requirement, as of next month, for employers to publish their gender pay and gender bonus gap would "shine a light" on where there is a difference between the sexes and "encourage" employers to tackle the issue.

Mrs May also praised Chancellor Philip Hammond's budget announcement of £5 million for 'returnships' - which the Prime Minister said would predominantly support women get back into work - as well as his additional funding to support organisations working to combat domestic violence and abuse. 

"Working together across government, across business, across civil society we will continue to improve the lot of women and girls at all stages of life to ensure they are safer, healthier, educated and empowered," she said. 

"We will continue to do this of course not just at home but abroad as well." 

Also at the reception were Olympic gold medallists Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh, who said that there were still not as many opportunities for women in hockey as there are for men.

Kate said: "At the moment what they're saying to young girls is you have less value than your male counterpart and we are really trying to get change and will do whatever it takes to get there."

Helen added: "In schools, hockey is seen as a girls' sport which is fine but when you then get to the top level it's still the men who are getting all the opportunities and things, so it's like, ok, that doesn't add up."

She encouraged girls interested in sport - many of whom she said still don't think it's something for them to pursue - to "go for it" and "not think that you can't do it", while being "prepared to fail".

Olympic rower Dame Katherine Grainger said that while her sport was male dominated when she started, after female rowers won their first Olympic medal in 2000 things changed.

"Suddenly having seen the success of British Olympic rowers, girls at clubs got more involved, more funding went to schools and suddenly it had this massive ripple effect in the whole of sport.

"Since Sydney we've won medals at every single Olympics... because of that we've had equal funding, equal sponsorship and we have equal coverage - if anything tipped in the favour of the women now."

Dame Katherine also said that the International Women's Day reception had left her feeling inspired: "A day like today you meet people from all different walks of life, all different spheres - from charities to business to sport.

"But what was lovely today is bringing everything together and there's so much to be learned from each other and inspire each other - that's why these gatherings are so important because people are invited here because they've already done quite a lot but they leave wanting to do more and that's what's so inspirational."

Justine Greening, who was also at the reception, said that education "can be the place where women's empowerment and girls' empowerment really takes off".

Ms Greening, who was previously international development secretary, said that while she used to focus on getting girls into school, her challenge now as Education Secretary was to "make sure that they are studying the subjects that could really keep their career options open".

"We've focused a lot of effort on making sure they are doing STEM subjects because we know that's traditionally not necessarily been something that girls will do."