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'We should be impatient to change the gender pay gap' says Cherie Blair QC

Cherie Blair has hit out at the lack of female CEOs in FTSE 100 companies warning that business is so skewed against women only the “fittest” can possibly survive.

In an exclusive interview with Yahoo Finance UK for International Women’s Day, Mrs Blair says we should be “impatient to change” the gender pay gap – which current estimates suggest will not be closed for another 170 years.

“There are seven female CEOs of FTSE 100 companies – that really isn’t good enough,” she warns.

She adds: “The reason it is not good enough, is that it is not to do with tokenism. It is not to do with being politically correct. It is actually to do with using the talent to get the job done.”

“In a world where women make so many decisions about family spending and make up virtually half the workforce, women are not able to find a route to the top [in business]. At every stage of career progression, women seem to drop out. Only the ‘fittest’ seem to survive,” she adds.

“At every stage of career progression, women seem to drop out. Only the ‘fittest’ seem to survive.”

In October 2015, a wide-ranging report into gender equality by Lord Davies’ recommended a third of all boardroom positions be given to women. This target is slowly being met with more than 25% in place – a proportion that has doubled since 2012.

The only women CEOs Emma Walmsley of GSK, Alison Brittain of Whitbread, Veronique Laury of Kingfisher, Alison Cooper of Imperial Tobacco, Liv Garfield of Severn Trent, Carolyn McCall of Easyjet and Moya Greene of Royal Mail.

Mrs Blair says the concept of ‘returnships’ should be a means of helping women back into the workforce after a career break. An initiative launched by the government earlier this year.

“We have ‘returnships’ for women, and a lot is invested in workplace schemes. We need this talent and we need women to feel that they are embraced by the workforce. There needs to be commitment from the top.”

Mrs Blair believes change is also coming too slowly, and that events like International Women’s Day is important.

“Frankly change is coming too slowly, and we need to do more. The fact that media outlets are doing it, the fact that International Women’s Day is being acknowledged by the Palace [is progress]. That would not have happened 20 years ago.”

She adds: “On top of that I am a woman, I am passionate about women’s issues. I was brought up by mother and grandmother – two strong women, and I witnessed the struggles they had. Both left school at 14, my grandma was working class. Both of their primary education stopped at 14. Many ways it still does in the developing world.

“So for me, it is really important that you have to ‘Be Bold’. Also with regards to the gender pay gap – it will take women 170 years to close that pay gap, to achieve equality with men. Anyway, at least by exposing the problem with International Women’s Day is progress. We have to celebrate that and we have to be impatient for change.”

Indeed this ‘impatience’ for change has been borne out in the measures announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond’s first Spring Budget [on March 8th]. Mr Hammond announced a series of measures including: a £5 million fund to help mothers to return to work after a career break, and domestic violence organisations would also receive £20 million.

In 2008, Mrs Blair set up her charity, the Cherie Blair Foundation For Women, in response to her experiences of meeting women around the world.

“The Foundation focuses on helping women from the emerging and developing markets, and these regions were my own personal choice. When I was in the process of leaving No 10 [Downing Street], I had a period of reflection. I thought: ‘what could I do with all the experience I gained whilst at No 10? What could I give back?’

CARE Kenya, Pic: Kate Holt

Prior to setting up the Foundation, Mrs Blair had accompanied the International Finance Corporation (IFC) on humanitarian visits to Uganda and Tanzania.

“I saw the IFC advance a line of credit to help encourage women entrepreneurs. I also noticed by talking to women in these countries, they were in a similar position to me, when I was starting out as a trainee lawyer in the 1970s. In the 1970s, only 10% of those called to the Bar were female. There were no role models back then. You had to fit in. It was not a question of them changing their practice [to suit you]. “

Mrs Blair has also drawn on her experiences with women’s charities like Refuge.

“In my career, I have worked with organisations like Refuge – I was patron there – which has been useful when setting up the Foundation. I have also used my experiences with technology, and with the Foundation we have taken technology to these women, so they can get more information and training [in their industries or starting up a business].

Mrs Blair’s “big mission” with the Foundation is to help women entrepreneurs, grow and expand their businesses, have access to technology, networks, and have the business skills, training and financial literacy which they need.

Pic: William Hirtle, Cherie Blair

 She says: “You can be a natural creative person, but if you don’t have the innate gift to draw up a profit and loss account. That is something that needs to be taught.“

The Foundation has managed to reach 136,000 women in over 90 countries over the last six years – which is a great achievement.  Mrs Blair says: “We have done this by using our skills and expertise in technology. Let’s use this technology in a targeted way to help these women.”

The Foundation has managed to reach 136,000 women in over 90 countries over the last six years.

Mrs Blair’s Foundation has identified a trend with the type of businesses that have been set up with their help.

She says: “It is quite interesting, when we think of women’s businesses, we either think of fashion and food, perhaps education, but because this platform is web-based we have seen a lot of web-based businesses being created.

For example, Queen [Mokulubete] is an engineer from South Africa; I met her when we launched our mentoring report. After spending 18 years in the South African mining industry, she launched her own company, Somila Engineering, a niche engineering company that manufactures and supplies specialised engineering products.”

The Foundation also has a mobile phone programme – in two rural states in Rwanda.

Mrs Blair adds: “This programme was set up with money from Accenture – we were able to reach 16,000 rural women and give them some basic training in business. We also devised a mobile loan product, which was loaning money at 19.75%, whereas the cooperatives and micro-finance institutions were loaning money at 24-36%. One of the problems in Africa is access to capital. When you have got to pay back interest it is crippling. Hence the women are a bit risk averse.

It is not just rural areas in Africa, which the Foundation is helping: “We also have programmes within the Lebanon. Thanks to the US State Department. We have also been in the Bekaa Valley next to Syria. We are starting a new project where half the people in the project are Syrian refugees. We realised pretty quickly we had to adapt our tools for these women, to deal with the fracturing and disruption of their lives living next to a war zone.”