The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women was set up in September 2008 in response to Cherie’s experiences meeting women around the world and her realisation that, with the right support, women could overcome the challenges they face, and play an important part in the economies and societies in which they work and live. Today the charity invests in women entrepreneurs, so they can build and expand their businesses – and in doing so benefit not only themselves but also their families and communities.
Her Foundation focuses its efforts on Africa, South Asia and the Middle East, in countries where women have made strides in education and have the potential to succeed in business, but lack the necessary support. We caught up with Cherie and found out why investing in women isn’t just good ethics, it’s sound economics…
What inspired you to get involved in supporting women’s rights?
I was inspired because of my background, both personally and professionally in my legal work, and my experiences when my husband was at Number 10. I have learnt that you never know what is around the corner and if, as a woman you don’t have financial independence and the ability to support yourself, life can become very difficult.
My father abandoned my mother when I was eight and my sister was six. She was left on her own without any support from him. She was a very ambitious woman and trained at RADA as an actress, but she had a job at a fish and chip shop at the Liverpool Docks in order to support her children. Both my mother and my grandmother were determined that my sister and I would get all the opportunities that they were denied.
I went to university in the late 1960s and early 1970s and opportunities were starting to open up for young women. By the time I had qualified as a barrister, things were changing, but companies were still saying, ‘we don’t take women, women don’t make good barristers’. It was seen as progressive to employ a woman, but the attitude was still ‘we’ve got one women, we don’t need another’. Hiring a woman wasn’t seen as a token gesture, just very progressive – even I didn’t see it as tokenism, I just accepted it as being the way it was for women. However, you had to be the best, because if you weren’t the best you weren’t likely to get any opportunities.
The year that I got called to the bar, the number of women qualifying was just 10% of all barristers. It was at a time when the domestic violence act had just been introduced and I took some of the earliest cases on that. Then there was the sex discrimination act. I took on some employment cases and discrimination law and I found myself becoming a specialist in that area and working on some of the cases that established the legal framework that is still used today.
And then all of this came to fruition when my husband was prime minister. I got to go to places and meet people that I would never have done otherwise. It became clear to me that the sort of experiences I’d had, and those of my mother and grandmother, were still the day-to-day-experiences of women in developing countries. I concluded that they didn’t have to wait as long for things to change as we did, nor make the same mistakes we did. I saw a great opportunity to help women who were behind the curve to catch up and do better than we have done.
Why did you feel that helping women in business was the most relevant and efficient way to help?
Apart from being grateful that I was born when I was and where I was, there’s that whole question of financial independence. If you’re exploited money gives you the ability to say yes or no, to walk out of an abusive relationship. For women all over the world to have financial independence I believe is a basic right. I also think it makes sense to invest in women in developing countries, you get a better return on your investment… I am not alone in thinking that; research by the OECD has shown that if you give $1 of developmental money to a woman, she will spend 90% of that on her family, her community. And for men, the figure is 30%-40%.
When women in Kenya have asked me why I am helping them, I’ve told them that story and then asked them what they think the figure is for men. Their answer is 1%. They told me the men in their lives go off and gratify themselves and leave the women to cope with the babies.
It is very sad. I am the mother of three boys and my husband is not like that – it pulls the good men down. The men who are giving 90% don’t get the credit for it.
In addition, investing in women can have a multi-generational impact. If you educate a girl, you’re educating her mother and the wider family and it has a healthy impact all round. It also gives them a chance to have a voice in their community, be more respected. Women are often seen as a burden to a family; the boy child is the one who gets sent to school, the girl child is the one who gets married young. The girl child is then often widowed early and so the ‘burden’ passes from father, to husband and then to the children. That dynamic is changed when women are seen as contributors.
One of your projects, Mentoring Women in Business, helps female entrepreneurs by offering an e-mentoring programme. Can you tell us a success story that particularly touched/inspired you?
In our country and in the developed world there is a desire to connect with real people in the developing world. People want to do practical things to help those in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, for example. Our mentors, both male and female, give one hour a fortnight to help the mentees. We identify the mentees through our partners. Then there is a yearlong relationship that has a beginning, middle and end, and goals are set.
I particularly like the case of Nehaya, a mentee in Palestine. Nehaya qualified at university but then couldn’t get a job. She started selling local, healthy food from her home to university students. However, she soon outgrew this and wanted to expand. She had been on a couple of courses at our business centre and had drawn up a business plan, but what she really needed was someone to help her make it a reality. She also needed advice on how best to source additional funding for the company and improve her networking skills.
Her mentor was Giles, a director in a UK manufacturing company. Nehaya and Giles held online meetings to discuss marketing and financial planning for her business. He helped her to identify the YMCA’s small business start-up fund as a potential source of funding and she won a $5,000 grant. He then helped her allocate that funding. With his support, Nehaya developed her strategy, won further funding and made wise investments. She now employs two people. For Giles, that is what mentoring is all about.
For a lot of the women in the programme, they are the first in their families to get educated and often they find they don’t have that shoulder to cry on in their own communities.
What are the main obstacles for female entrepreneurs in developing and emerging countries?
Skills training, access to technology, finance and the whole question of women not being taken seriously. Our programme looks at the three Cs: Capability – our business centre aims to get them the right training; Confidence – or lack of, using our mentors to help build their confidence; and Capital – how can we get them the capital they need?
We try to look beyond micro finance, where women are earning small amounts of money in their own home just to alleviate poverty. We are aiming for women to work outside of their own homes, employ people who aren’t family and move them away from being informal businesses. But securing capital is really hard for them.
You are working in partnership with the US State Department and Women to develop the Mobile Technology programme: do you see mobile phones as one of the primary tools to achieve gender balance in business?
The women in our mentoring programme have to be able to speak English and they have to have access to a computer. For a lot of people in Africa, this is a reality well beyond their means. But access to a mobile phone isn’t. It’s their link to the outside world. GSMA research has shown that men were getting access to mobiles, but women weren’t. We can use mobiles for text, for researching basic information about suppliers, and for sending and receiving cash payments. In Kenya, this makes a huge difference to the women who were walking two or three hours carrying money.
Women are also becoming more involved with the retail side of mobile phones, with jobs selling airtime, or selling the phones themselves. In Indonesia, I have visited women in villages who are selling time on SIM cards and cross-selling with other items, like corner shop products, in order to supplement their income.
What is your opinion on the current situation for businesswomen and female board members in the UK?
This is not just an issue for the UK but for Europe. I predict that we will see a Europe-wide directive. The reality is that women are still not breaking through the glass ceiling in enough numbers, we still have a pathetic number of women CEOs and a low level of women in board positions. Lord Davies’ report has identified that this is bad for business as having a diverse board with at least 30% women gives different points of view and experiences, which can lead to a better bottom line and a safer investment for shareholders.
I love the joke about what would have happened to Lehman Brothers had it been called Lehman Sisters… with the answer being that it couldn’t have been any worse, could it?!
The Davies report moved this issue up the agenda but we have seen mixed progress since then. He recommended one in three board appointments be women and for FSTE 100 companies to set their own targets. Sadly, only 33 of the FSTE 100 have done this…
I also think it was an excellent idea of his to ask companies what they were achieving in this area and if they weren’t making progress, why not? For example, an engineering company might say ‘we are an engineering company and there aren’t many women in engineering – that’s the reason’. However, I would be surprised if every single person on that board was actually an engineer – what about accountants, or lawyers? The Davies report also found that only 4% or 5% of those appointed to board positions were done so after a competitive interview. The overwhelming reason why someone was appointed as a nonexecutive director was because they knew the chairman!
The movement around women’s rights and gender equality is becoming more prominent and these issues are on the agenda of more and more countries and international bodies: do you feel optimistic for the future?
Absolutely. The 21st century is the century for this. I don’t want to replace male dominance with female dominance, but to get men and women coming together with mutual respect and equal dignity, working together to provide an overall approach.
We are seeing that happen more and more, not just here in the developed world but in places such as the Middle East. When you look around and see how many girls are now being educated and how well they’re doing, it is inevitable there will be change. Tragically, at the moment in the Middle East the girls are getting the education, but they don’t always then get the opportunity to work in the world of business and we need to do more about that.
Another reason I feel optimistic is because I think men want it to change now. Women are now having the opportunity to say ‘we are not just one dimensional’. But for men it’s very hard for them to be perceived as anything but one-dimensional. Women have rights to flexible working and various policies that have made a huge difference to how women work.
These policies are there for men too, but it’s not seen as something ‘real men’ do. We are in the 21st century and I would want my sons to stand up and say ‘I am a caring man. I have a nurturing side, a life as well as a job and other things to give beyond work. And by being able to do that, I have more to give in my work’.
Do you feel that mentalities and behaviours are now changing in a way that can make us hopeful that one day gender equality won’t be an issue any more?
We have seen change, but we need to step up that change. We have to work out how to make things happen, whether it’s equal pay, or more women board members, or more women judges, etc. Reports show that at the current rate of change we’re not going to be waiting 10 or 20 years, but more than 100 before it is achieved…
What do you think UK citizens can do to help address gender balance?
It’s not just about talking the talk, we need to walk the walk too. There are now women in leadership roles, but we need to build up middle management roles – helping each other is so important, along with mentoring and networking.
As a mother, it is not just about how we raise our daughters, it’s about how we raise our sons too. We have a role to play, we have choices to make, and we need to make ethical choices. The more we talk about this, the more things will change.
Interview by Amanda Morreale and Melanie Eilers http://www.themarketmagazine.co.uk/
Cherie Blair (Cherie Booth Q.C.) is a barrister and mediator who practises from Matrix Chambers (where she was a founding member) in London. This interview is republished here with Cherie’s kind permission for which Pakistan Horizon is extremely grateful.