At a glance
  • Figures for women executive directors on boards are disappointing with about 23.5% in the FTSE 100 and 18% in the FTSE 250
  • Only 29% of our members of parliament are women and only 450 women have ever been MPs
  • The World Economic Forum reports that it will be another 80 years until women reach economic equality with men
9th October 2015

Mind The Gap

Cherie Blair’s mother, Gale, worked in a fish and chip shop to make ends meet when her husband, the actor Tony Booth, left her for another woman.

Gale, along with Cherie, eight, and her sister Lyndsey, six, had no choice but to continue living with her in-laws in Liverpool. Eventually she got a job at Lewis’s department store and worked her way up the career ladder but she still could not get a mortgage.

Cherie said: “The Divorce Reform Act was not introduced until 1969 so in those days the bank would only lend money if the man signed for a mortgage. It was absurd because the assumption that my father, a drunk and a womaniser, was more reliable than my mother, was almost unthinkable.”

Cherie’s mother had left school at 14 and made every effort to give her daughters the schooling she had missed.

Cherie, 60, said: “It was quite unusual in 60’s Britain for a woman to be separated from her husband but my mother and grandmother were obsessed with education and determined we would have the education they were denied. There were lots of books in the house.

“They had high expectations so I worked hard because I wanted to make them proud.

“It was a loving environment. We were not much different to anyone else in Ferndale Road. We played in the street, had a black and white television and were generally sheltered from the consequences of my father’s behaviour because he was in London.”

Booth, the star of the racy Confessions films, including Confessions of a Window Cleaner, and TV sitcom Till Death Us Do Part ‘was not always a good boy’, said Cherie. “Although in some ways, it gave me some training on what to expect with a famous husband.”

Cherie did not start out with a career plan. When she was thinking about university, her first boyfriend’s mother mentioned law. She said, “you are good at debating and drama so why not think about being a lawyer?”

“I managed to get a full scholarship and chose the London School of Economics (LSE) which was fairly unusual for a girl from my school. The LSE had a radical reputation and though it was a rebellious streak that took me to London, once I got there I found it was the place for me.  I loved it.

“I chose to focus on human rights – partly because I was interested in the whole women’s thing and there was so much happening at that time...“

“It was a huge learning curve in every way and it was the first time I had met people from public school - but I was determined to succeed.

“I chose to focus on human rights – partly because I was interested in the whole women’s thing and there was so much happening at that time. I was also aware there were a lot of differences between those who came from public schools and people like me with a completely different background.

“I graduated in 1975 when the Labour Party had just brought in the Sex Discrimination Act. Times were changing and I was lucky enough to take advantage of that for myself and seize the opportunity to take some of the test cases that led to the development of the Human Rights Act.

“I remember the women at Ford in Dagenham going on strike. I was always interested in politics but it was usually the men who talked about it among themselves – but my Auntie Audrey was always politically aware so I would discuss things with her, while my teacher, Mrs Speight, encouraged me to join the Labour Party when I had turned 16.

“That was in 1970, when Barbara Castle introduced the Equal Pay Act with a five-year phasing in period, so when I went to university, employment law was one of the pieces of legislation I studied.”

Cherie was called to the Bar in 1976 and in 1995 she became a Queen’s Counsel. She said: “I was the 76th woman and even now only 200 women have been appointed as silks, compared to thousands of men.”

She said: “Look at our members of parliament, too. Only 29% are women. I visit Rwanda with my Foundation and its government has 60% women! Here, nobody says how strange 70% of MPs are men or that only 450 women have ever been MPs, fewer than the men in this single parliament.

“When my husband Tony Blair introduced all-women shortlists in 1997, and as a result at the next election there was a big increase in Labour MPs, the press then called them ‘Blair Babes’, implying that surely unless they were ‘babes’ they could not possibly have been elected.”

Cherie is even less impressed by the forecasts for women’s equality. She said: “The World Economic Forum reports that it will be another 80 years until women reach economic equality with men.

“There is lots we can do. Diversity in employment is the key to making the best return for investors and for creating a better, more educated workforce.

“We have all the evidence from reports by accountant Ernst & Young and Harvard Business School to show this, not just gender equality but all kinds of equality in the workforce; disability, race, sexual orientation and age. Everyone working together and accepting their differences is much more creative than uniform white, male employees.

“As for quotas for women on boards, I see this as a necessary step, a catalyst for change - not to be in force forever, something just to gain momentum.”

“It has been encouraged in places likes Norway, France and Germany but if we think we can solve inequality with women on executive boards we are kidding ourselves.”

“Figures for women executive directors on boards are disappointing with about 23.5% in the FTSE 100 and 18% in the FTSE 250.”

Cherie is also aware that one woman on a board cannot bring systematic change. She said: “It does not make much difference with one woman, as she can be an isolated voice, but if you have two or three, say 33%, you start finding a real change and it can be sustainable.”

“I welcome the 25% target but it would not have come about without the threat of compulsory legislation and we cannot be complacent.”

Cherie has also spoken to David Cameron before he was Prime Minister, regarding the gender pay gap, and she says he takes the issue seriously. 

She said: “In 2010 all companies of more than 250 employees were required to report their gender pay gap but this was a voluntary code and only five companies did so. It will now be compulsory.

“Girls are doing better at school and performing as well, if not better, at university but after they enter the workplace, within five years men are earning more and accelerating up the career ladder.

“When I was first a young lawyer I was determined to be as good as any male lawyer.

When I started my pupillage at a law firm in the 1970’s, I was in direct competition for a job with a young man. Even though I performed better and had scored better in my studies, it became clear that when the firm was deciding to give one of us a permanent job, they were going to pick the man. I found this incredibly unfair - even the male candidate admitted that I was better suited for the job. The firm, however, missed out in the end, as this man eventually left the law and went in to politics. He also ended up being my husband. 

“I would not necessarily recommend what I did.  Because I wanted to prove myself, when I had children, I did not take maternity leave or make any concessions. Now all these provisions are within the rules.  There is specific provision for maternity leave, for example. That is right and proper and as it should be.

“Not all women are the same and not all men are the same either. A lot of the changes have benefited men as well as women.”

“Only one per cent of men are taking up paternity leave because they are scared of what might happen to their jobs - so there is a fault in the system. The better companies recognise that an employee has a larger hinterland than just their work and that makes them better people.”

Cherie has high hopes that Hillary Clinton could also bring about great changes from across the pond if she was elected as President of the United States.

Cherie said: “Hillary is a friend and an inspiration. When she failed to be nominated in 2008, she gave a speech about the cracks in the glass ceiling. I would like to see her go through that ceiling.

Her breadth of knowledge and experience over many years in public life make her uniquely qualified to become the first woman president of the USA.”

Although Cherie sees Hillary as an icon, she says her mother and grandmother have been role models and she continues to live by their words: Never let anything defeat you, stand up against adversity and be fearless.

“It took me a long way.”

Cherie and Julie talk about their shared passion for charitable causes

“We focus on the three C’s,” said Cherie. “Confidence, capacity and access to capital.”Fighting for equal opportunities has shaped Cherie Blair’s life and her charitable foundation now helps women build small and growing businesses in 80 countries.

More than 125,000 women have benefited from the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women since its formation in 2008 and they are now able to contribute to their own economies and have a stronger voice in their societies.

Cherie said: “I come across so many fantastic things going on across the world and because of my own background I want to help make a difference.

“I am entrepreneurial.”

“As a barrister, I am self-employed so it resonated with me to help other women to help themselves.”

When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected as Africa’s first woman president, in Liberia, I was thrilled to hear a week later that a young girl in an African school who was being told off for being noisy in class said to her teacher “be careful how you speak to me as I might be president one day”. This would never have been dreamed of before then. Isn’t that wonderful?”

Cherie is also a self-confessed techie. She said: “I am obsessed by technology because I would never have coped as a self-employed barrister, Prime Minister’s wife and mother of three sons and a daughter if I had not been able to use the internet to make my life easier.

“In the 21st century there is so much more we can do through technology and we can accelerate our reach to women so they will not have to wait so long to achieve equality.

“We have a mentoring programme which uses English and an innovative online platform to help women build their computer skills and business knowledge.

“One woman now runs an internet café in Kigali, Rwanda and has a scanning machine so locals can pay their taxes. While I was visiting I commented on one woman’s lovely dress.  She said she had learned to make it by watching dressmaking on YouTube. Such resourcefulness is incredible – I don’t think I could do that!

“We encourage women to look at the market and work out the gaps. In Rwanda, we are supporting 15,000 small businesswomen through a project which provides finance literacy and business training. We do it in many different ways and also support savings and loans clubs, sometimes in villages where there is no electricity or running water.

“One woman I spoke to was 22, not married and not particularly happy. She thought saving clubs should not just be for the older women so she borrowed 200 francs from her parents to buy seeds to grow vegetables. From her profit she bought a pig, which had five piglets, and then she diversified to sell fertiliser.

“As a result she has increased her confidence, she has paid back her parents, pays health insurance for her siblings and has even got engaged.”