What motivated you to focus on empowering women through your career, and through your Foundation for women?
I think my passion for women’s rights came from the way I was raised – by my mother and my grandmother, both incredibly strong women. My father had left us when I was in primary school, and I quickly learned about the importance of being self-sufficient. Both my mother and grandmother had to leave school at 14 but, because of that, they were determined that my sister and I would have a better start in life. We were encouraged to make the most of our education and, importantly, to believe in ourselves.
That’s the underlying ethos of my Foundation. All too often women are told they can’t. We tell them they can. I feel very strongly that no woman should be held back from realising her dreams just because she is a woman.
Why do you focus specifically on women entrepreneurs?
During my time in Downing Street, I had the privilege of travelling a great deal and meeting many inspiring women, both in the UK and across the globe. The women that struck me the most were those strong and determined women entrepreneurs who were striving to create a better life for themselves and their families. They faced enormous challenges. Some lived in very remote areas, isolated from the networks and infrastructure you need to set up a business. Others faced resistance from family members. Most struggled to get the capital they needed to start or grow their enterprises.
I realised that, if those barriers could be broken down, these women would thrive. They had the ambition and ideas – they just needed the right support to make their vision a reality. And I knew that the benefits of this would be enormous. After all, when a woman can make, and control, her own money, she can make her own choices. And when women earn an income, research shows that they drive 90% of that income right back into their families and communities – making them powerful accelerators of economic growth. It was clear to me that a compelling argument could be made that would bring corporations and governments on board so that we could really get something done on a global scale to improve the quality of women’s lives, and in turn, the lives of their children and wider communities.
How far has the Foundation come in supporting women?
Since I established the Foundation in 2008, we have reached over 125,000 women across more than 80 countries.
Growing our reach in such a short space of time is something that has only been possible by working with partners that have a passion to match our own. We find that passion in local NGOs working on the ground, as well as big corporations, government bodies and financial institutions. By making the Foundation’s mission a team effort across sectors we can go so much further.
What are your goals for the Foundation?
The Foundation focuses on what we call the ‘three Cs’: capability, confidence and access to capital. These are the crucial ingredients for success for women entrepreneurs. Another key goal in all of our work is increasing financial inclusion for women – and by that I mean increasing women’s access to formal financial services. It might surprise some readers to know that over one billion women across the world still don’t have access to a basic bank account – something most of us here in the UK probably take for granted. That’s over one billion women who don’t have a safe or secure way to save, invest, spend or borrow money. The opportunity to make money is a powerful thing, but the ability to control what happens to your money is just as important.
Have we really moved on as a society in terms of gender inequality? How have you seen things change over the course of your life and career?
Yes – I’d say we have moved forward in terms of tackling gender inequality. When I was starting out as a lawyer in the 70s, it was the first time the proportion of women being called to the Bar reached double figures. By 2000, those figures were almost 50-50. But, of course, that’s not the full story, because we still don’t have gender parity in the top ranks: men still dominate the most senior positions in the legal profession – and most other professions. I’ve used this example because it shows that whilst we are moving forward, we’re still a long way from being able to claim that we are a gender equal society.
When it comes to economic and political activity, the picture is even more alarming. The World Economic Forum’s recent Global Gender Gap Report, for example, shows that developed and developing countries have made encouraging strides in increasing access to education and improving health conditions for women and girls. But when you look at political and economic activity, the distance to equality is much wider. Worldwide, the gender gaps on political representation and economic activity are only 23% and 59% closed, respectively. Women continue to be paid less than men, earning on average 60-75% of men’s wages, while women undertake 75% of all unpaid care work.
So I’d say that whilst progress on gender equality is happening, it’s only happening in some aspects of women’s lives and I’d add, the progress is still much too slow. Based on the current rate of progress it will take an incredible 118 years before women gain full economic parity with men.
How can we get involved/follow the work of the Foundation?
We are always looking for passionate professionals to join us as mentors in our Mentoring Women in Business Programme. It’s an amazing programme which matches professionals – both men and women – with women entrepreneurs from developing and emerging economies. We ask that our mentors and mentees commit to the programme for one year and spend at least two hours each month working together one-one-one. To date, the programme has matched 1,800 women from over 80 countries with mentors. That includes a woman who runs a hair salon in Kuala Lumpur being mentored by a hair stylist from Spain, and a banking executive from America who supported a Botswanan woman to open up her own events management company.
To find out more about the Mentoring Women in Business Programme and the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women please visit www.cherieblairfoundation.org.