NEW YORK – Cherie Blair was not one to walk the international stage as the wife of a leader without making some uncomfortable observations about the role.
“I used to say I was not the first lady of Great Britain,” she said. “Prince Philip was the first lady of Great Britain because normally it’s the head of state’s wife or spouse who’s called ‘first lady.’”
Still, Blair said she used her experience as a resident of 10 Downing Street to help guide her work after her husband, Tony Blair, stepped down as British prime minister in 2007.
“In my time, I was asked to meet lots of women’s organizations or lawyers,” she told News Deeply, sitting in her New York hotel room. “That gave me the idea of setting up my foundation because, having gone around the world and met a lot of women, I realized that there was a lot you could do for women’s economic empowerment.”
She set up the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, which focuses on women’s economic empowerment and entrepreneurship, in 2008. She said her experience as a barrister, a self-employed position in the U.K., also encouraged her to work on supporting women-run businesses in the developing world. Figures cited in the foundation’s most recent annual report say its programs have reached 140,000 women in 100 countries so far, with a goal of reaching 250,000 by 2019.
Blair was in New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, where she was speaking in various forums including the U.N. itself, the satellite Concordia Summit and charity luncheons. She was here to represent her foundation, as well as her firm, Omnia Strategy, which advises international clients on international law, dispute resolution and public relations. Tony Blair was also on the U.N. circuit, discussing Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump and the future of the left.
She sat down with News Deeply to discuss the persistence of the gender gap, what economic empowerment actually looks like on the ground and how to get men to invest in women.
Women & Girls: You have spoken this week of your frustration that gender equality slid backward in 2016, and that the gender gap won’t close for another 170 years. Are you surprised at how long it’s taken to make progress?
Cherie Blair: When I went to university I decided I would study labor law, and at that time, the Labour government had introduced the Equal Pay Act. By 1975, which was the year I graduated, the Sex Discrimination Act had come in. I started my work as a lawyer and found myself working a lot in employment law and doing a lot of women’s employment law. Of course, I thought, well we had changed the law, now everything’s going to be hunky dory. Yet, here we are, 40 years on.
It is a bit dispiriting because – and I suppose I always knew this – changing the law is not enough. But I do think it is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition.
If you don’t change the laws, you still have the situation in some countries where women can’t own land, or where women can’t move out of the house. In 18 countries in the world, a women cannot take up a job without the permission of a man. Changing those laws certainly makes a difference. But changing society takes a lot longer.
Women & Girls: What do you think is the adequate legal structure, as that first step, to create the environment where women can become economically independent?
Blair: First, women absolutely have to have the freedom to act as an individual actor in their own rights. So no, they should not have to ask for permission as to whether they can go out of the house or take a job.
Second, they need to be able to have control over the organs of wealth, so absolutely women need to be able to own and inherit property.
Third, you have to make sure there is universal education for women. For women to be able to access that, you also need to ensure that girls aren’t married too young, that’s a legal issue as well.
Women & Girls: You set up the foundation not too long after leaving No. 10. I imagine there were all sorts of causes that you could have focused on. Why did you choose women’s economic empowerment and entrepreneurship?
Blair: When I think about myself as a working-class girl from Liverpool, and the first person in my family to go to university, what made a difference to my life that my mother couldn’t possibly imagine, was education. She left school at 14, and I graduated at 21. The other thing was that then I was able to earn and make my own decisions because I had my own money.
My own mother, when she was abandoned by my dad, had to go out and work in a fish and chip shop to support her two daughters. Though she did get a job in a big department store and eventually became the manager of the travel bureau there, that was a long hard struggle for her with two children to bring up. Whereas I was able to bring up my children with the help of my husband, and I had enough money to be able to afford childcare, to be able to do the things I wanted to do, because I could make my own choices. I wasn’t beholden to anyone else.
The year I got called to the bar, it was the first time that it had gone over 10 percent women in my profession. By the time I was in Downing Street and my daughter was thinking of becoming a lawyer, there were [more than] 50 percent women in law schools, and we’re at 37 percent women at the bar now.
When I was going to places like Pakistan or [countries in] Africa and meeting women there, many of them were in the position, if they were lucky, that I was in the 1970s. Of course, in some countries, women were in the same position my mother was.
I knew that if it had worked in our country and we had made progress, then we had the tools. If we could apply them to the women in the developing world, we could make a difference more quickly and they wouldn’t have to wait as long as the 40 years it’s taken to get from 10 percent to 50 percent in my country. And maybe they could do it even better – because we made so many mistakes along the way.
Women & Girls: An often-quoted figure in development funding says that if you invest in a woman, she will invest 90 percent of that income back in her family and if you invest in men, it’s 35 percent. I think it’s fair to say that there’s nothing inherent in women that means that they do that. How do you leverage discrepancies like that without reinforcing gender roles?
Blair: When I talk about this figure, I always say to the men in the room, “I’m outraged by that 35 percent, as a mother of three sons with a husband who is definitely not a 35 percent man.”
What is happening is you’re allowing men like my father (by the way, I love my father and he has many great virtues as well) to dictate what a real man can do and what a real man looks like. [Editor’s note. Tony Booth died the week after Women & Girls spoke to Cherie Blair.]
And yet, actually, there are plenty of stories of men who go that extra mile to support their families and work themselves to the bone just to put bread on the table. It’s about women and men working together. Everyone has to take responsibility for the next generation.
I see it in my own son, having just become a grandmother. My husband is a very hands-on father, but there were certain things that he would and wouldn’t do, while his son is prepared to do it all. I know [Tony Blair] was so much better than his father, because his father’s view at the time was: “I’m the breadwinner, my wife stays at home, because if she doesn’t stay at home it would be saying I’m not a good provider.” My husband was a lot more involved, and I see my son even more involved. I think we all benefit from that.
Women & Girls: One of your focus areas at the foundation is access to financial institutions – 42 percent of women worldwide don’t have bank accounts…
Blair: 65 percent of women-owned small and medium enterprises are unserved or underserved; that’s a $260-320 billion funding gap. If you look at venture capital, [more than] 90 percent of venture capital goes to men.
Whichever level you [look at], women are underrepresented, for reasons that don’t add up when you look at statistics. People are still saying women are unreliable, when all the statistics shows it’s absolutely the opposite.
The foundation runs a number of schemes where we try to improve access to financing, including training women and getting them finance-ready, so that they can go in and make their case. Yet they still find themselves coming up against finance officers, middle to slightly lower down in the level of the bank. Down at the grassroots, the people who were actually administering the loans still had a view about women that they hadn’t been educated out of.
So you have to work with the men and you have to use incentives. You have to make sure that message goes all the way down, and the only way to do that is often to give incentives that state they have to give [a percentage of loans] to women.
Women & Girls: How have you seen women’s lives change when they do get access to mainstream finance?
Blair: If you give a woman with a good business idea and a good business brain money then what tends to happen is that their business grows. And that’s certainly what we’ve found in our different schemes – like with our mentoring platform.
Our Skilling for Change project in Rwanda worked with 16,000 women: 91 percent of them saw an increase in profit, 3,000 new jobs were created; 4,000 women gained access to formal finance, and 85 percent of them used it to develop their business. The financial situation of women improved by 110 percent.
I feel very passionately that when we think of the resource of these women and girls, who maybe have got married at 14 or maybe haven’t been able to go to university, that doesn’t mean that they’re not available to learn throughout the course of their lives. We’re tapping into a resource where the formal education system has missed out. Yes, we should do more in the formal education system and make sure that fewer people drop out, but we’ve got to do something for those people who have dropped out.
Women & Girls: The term ‘empowerment’ is used a lot these days in all sorts of contexts, but what does actual economic empowerment look like?
Blair: The first thing is confidence. It sounds so twee, doesn’t it? But it’s really important because girls and women around the world are always been told what they can’t do. To give them the confidence to say, “Actually, yes I can,” is so important.
Then it’s capacity-building. We did a program where we delivered hints and tips to business women on mobile phones. I remember one of the women there saying that she had been a teacher and she was retiring from teaching and had a poultry business on the side. Her poultry was okay, but the eggs were a bit small.
Through the pieces of information we gave her, she realized that what she needed to do was to invest a little bit in building up her chickens and investing in better feed for them. She did that, suddenly her hens were more productive and they were producing more, and she ended up getting more because they were better eggs. She ended up with a contract with the local restaurants. This was important because she’d retired by that time as a teacher, she didn’t have a pension, and this was her income. We didn’t say on our hints and tips, “Buy better feed for your hens,” but we did say sometimes you have to invest to progress and gave them some examples of that.
Access to capital is the hardest one to crack. We’re always trying to find out new ways. If you want $10 through microfinance, we’ve cracked that to some extent. If you want $10 million, then there is a whole mechanism there. But if you want $20,000 or $50,000 to take your small factory employing 10 workers to the next stage, it’s so hard to get that. That goes for everyone, but it’s particularly hard for women.
You don’t have the comfort that microfinance gives you because generally speaking, microfinance is community-based, so there’s peer pressure. Peer pressure doesn’t really work for [larger] sums of money, so you’ve got to find other ways to give that security and that comfort to the lenders. We’re not saying to everyone, “These people are surefire investments,” but they are in a better position to be considered for finance than those who haven’t had the training. That’s why we’re in the supply chain of entrepreneurs.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
This article has been updated to specify the name of the Cherie Blair Foundation program in Rwanda.