Cherie Blair on the leadership presence of women
13 May 2013 -
Cherie Blair’s onstage interview with CMI chief executive Ann Francke reveals a woman who is more heroine than the harridan the press made her out to be
When Cherie Blair was called to the Bar in 1976, women weren’t popular. “People would say to me, ‘Girls don’t do litigation because their voices aren’t suitable – they are too light, they don’t carry,’” she recalls. “Or, they’d say, ‘We don’t want a woman on this case – because the clients wouldn’t like it.’”
Assuming her personality then was similar to what it is today – funny, disarmingly charming, entirely without airs – it is obvious why the young Cherie wasn’t put off. “We were stuck with this idea that caring was for women and fighting sabre-toothed tigers was for men,” she says. “But we don’t have sabre-toothed tigers any more.”
The prehistoric cats have gone. But Blair doesn’t think the world has grown up that much since. Certainly, she tells Ann Francke – interviewing her on stage – it hasn’t grown up enough.
Blair’s daughter, Kathryn, is following in her mother’s footsteps and has just qualified as a barrister. Nobody will tell Kathryn that women lack the vocal cords for a legal career, Blair says; nor will they say, “Clients don’t like girls.” “And that’s all fine,” adds Blair. “But then you go into the late twenties, early thirties and what do you find? Women start dropping out. And then you go into the forties and you find that those women who dropped out haven’t come back; and so you get even fewer women. And then you get to the old dinosaurs like me still around in their fifties and there’s only a handful of us.”
Chartered Management Institute (CMI) chief executive Ann Francke: You’re not a dinosaur. Fifty is the new middle age. It’s official.
Cherie Blair: I’m convinced of it! But nevertheless, why is that pattern happening? It’s obvious – it’s to do with childcare. It’s to do with the fact that we haven’t got our heads around how we help women fulfil themselves both as mothers and as active participants in the workforce, which they are today. And we haven’t got it round our heads how we can help men to do exactly the same thing.
AF: So what do we do to fix that? Is it about publishing stats on the number of women at each level and what they’re paid?
CB: I am a huge supporter of transparency. Forgive me for sounding a little political, but the last Labour government was about to make sure that companies actually publish statistics on equal pay. Good businesses are the ones that value all their employees – and one sign of that is equal pay. Information is key. Recently we’ve had the Davies Report and what shocked me was that only 5% of people appointed as non-executive directors of boards have been through any kind of process at all. Half of all non-executive directors are appointed because they know the chairman. And it is the chair-man.
AF: I’ve heard chairmen say, “We want women, but we can’t find enough qualified women.”
CB: Of course you can find women if you want them! It’s about not taking a view on who’s going to succeed in business based on decisions that are made in people’s late twenties and thirties, when women want to have children. We need to accept that in a working life of 40 years you can make different choices as to how far you put your foot down on the accelerator pedal at home and at work. We seem to have this idea that you make that choice once, and you don’t get the chance to change gear.
AF: It’s typical that a woman will go back into work after maternity leave and she’ll go back part time: flexible working will be very difficult, even if it’s offered. And then she’s often so grateful to be taken back she doesn’t think, “Actually I’m doing the same job as that guy over there, but I’m doing it for what he was paid five years ago.”
CB: For women to challenge that when they’re still in the job is incredibly difficult. There are other things we can do, of course. I’m a great believer in networks. I’m also a great believer in involving men in these things, so it doesn’t seem that yet again it’s just a load of women moaning about their lives, but it’s seen as a proper networking opportunity where you’re meeting people who are going to be good for the business and good for your career.
I was lucky in my career that there weren’t many women around to help me so it tended to be men who were themselves QCs and would bring me into their cases. They would say to their solicitors, “Take Cherie. I can’t do this case, but she would be good.”
That mentoring was crucial – Blair did not come to the Bar via a traditional path. Theresa Cara Booth, her real name, was born in what is now Greater Manchester. She moved to the outskirts of Liverpool and, after her father left her mother when she was a little girl, was brought up by her mother and paternal grandmother. Financially, it was a struggle. But, despite the family turbulence, she passed the 11 Plus and flew through grammar school, gaining four A grades at A-Level and winning a place to read law at the London School of Economics, then a notable breeding ground for leftwing intellectuals. From there, Blair became one of the leading liberal lawyers of her generation, scoring numerous successes in the fields of employment law, diversity and human rights.
As well as her powerful intellect, her formidable people skills pushed her on. Her public image is mixed but, in the flesh, she is quite the raconteur, cracking jokes and teasing the photographer.
Today’s interview notwithstanding, Cherie Blair – lawyer, mother, wife – is in the public eye less these days. And you sense she prefers it that way. The press were never a fan of her, nor her of them. “We only have to look at the vision of women in the media to feel a bit depressed,” she says. “There are so many great women in the world who are doing amazing things, but how often do we see them publicised in our media? We tend to see women portrayed in the media as sex objects or as harridans. I was a bit of a harridan myself, but there we go. It was such a shame.”
Still, it bothers her less now. She’s found perspective through her latest venture, the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, a successful charity that helps women in business in the developing world. Her work was a major contributor to her being made CBE in the New Year Honours for services to women’s issues and charity.
“In places like Malaysia and Nigeria I talk to the women about the difficulties they have just getting electricity,” she says. “I talk about the difficulties they have about getting any respect in a very male-dominated society, and I see them there bringing up their children after their husbands have abandoned them or died of Aids, and the women are the bedrock of their community.” Yet despite this, just like high-profile women here, who may wince at the way they are portrayed in the media, a lack of self-confidence is often a problem. In the past this has affected Blair herself, but witnessing the fortitude of her clients in the developing world has helped her reassess her outlook.
But while Blair says a certain deficit of self-confidence is typical of women everywhere, it’s exacerbated in the developing world. “Generally speaking we have taught our boys to believe that if they put themselves forward it’s because they’re worthy,” she says. “But we tend to teach our girls that, in some way or another, they’re not quite good enough.
“And, of course, when you come to countries like India, Palestine or Indonesia, women are often told, ‘We were pleased to have you as our child, but really we wanted a son and obviously as a girl you’re not going to get the same education.’ In some countries girls don’t get as good food as their brothers. Women’s confidence in themselves needs to be built up. So we do a lot around confidence building.”
What Blair is emphatic about is that women have to help women. She accepts a contention from an audience member that successful women can sometimes stop other women doing well by being intensely competitive with them. Her advice is to reach the top, then help others up. “It’s almost like there’s this terrible fear that there are only a few people who can succeed,” she says. “Some women think, ‘If you succeed then that’s one less place for me.’ It’s not like that. Every time one woman does go through the glass ceiling and does well then there is a greater chance that other women will come through as well. We all succeed together.”
1954 Born Bury, Greater Manchester
1970 Joins Labour Party
1976 Graduates from London School of Economics with a first in law
1976 Called to the Bar
1983 Makes unsuccessful run for Parliament
1995 Becomes Queen’s Counsel
2008 Founds Cherie Blair Foundation for Women
FIND OUT MORE
The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women is recruiting mentors. If you are interested, or would like to learn more about the foundation’s work, visit www.cherieblairfoundation.org
Cherie Blair headlined at the Women in Management network’s Women in Leadership Beyond 2020 event. Click here to get involved in the network’s activities
Image of Cherie Blair courtesy of the Wikimedia commons, via Wikipedia
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