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Cherie speaks at a Gender Diversity Conference in Holland

Cherie speaks at a Gender Diversity Conference in Holland

Signing up to the Charter

Cherie speaks at a Gender Diversity Conference in Holland

Cherie's speech. Photo © Mike van Bemmelen

Cherie speaks at a Gender Diversity Conference in Holland

Janine Lee Shepherd in the audience. Photo © MvB

'The failure to make the most of the potential of women is the last great impediment to universal progress.' Hilary Clinton

Earlier this month Cherie was invited to Amsterdam to address The Talent to the Top Foundation 'Stichting Talent naar de Top' which was set up in 2008 by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. Its mission is to establish a 'healthy' balance of men and women on the boards of Dutch organisations. One means to achieving this goal is the Charter Talent to Top: by signing this Charter, companies commit themselves to furthering the promotion of women to higher positions and developing their diversity policy. Five new companies signed up to the Charter at the one day event during which Cherie gave her talk.

In her speech Cherie explained how fortunate she feels that her life has coincided with huge advances for women in the UK, the Netherlands and around the world. The prejudice facing women when she began her career as a lawyer had been rooted out and there were tough laws banning discrimination and a genuine desire throughout society to recruit and promote on merit.

But while there has been great progress, we remained a long way from real equality of opportunity as the continuing gender pay gap and lack of women in the boardrooms in both the Netherlands and the UK showed. The barriers may now be informal and often unconscious but they remain. This is very damaging not just to women but to businesses and economies and is a waste of talent we can't afford.

The challenges our world faces are so complex, we need to harness the talents and potential of everyone, whatever their background. Nor is it just about numbers. Research also shows that diversity improves decision-making while women can also bring qualities which complement those of their male colleagues.

The best way of ensuring there are more women at the top, however, was to make sure there were plenty of women at the next level down. This is where the greatest problems still lie and where there is the most need for increased efforts.

There are no easy answers to these challenges, but it must start with a greater emphasis to helping people achieve work-life balance, to be able to take time off to have children - an area where the Netherlands is more advanced than the UK. This will help men as well as women.

All this requires not only new practical measures from government and business policies but also a lead from the top. It is a personal example which often matters as much as policy initiatives in changing the culture of workplaces.

That's why it is important organisations support informal women's networks and encourage mentoring - something which many sensible businesses and organisations have already realised.

It is also an initiative which the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, with the support of Google, is trying to do on an international scale. 'We have been recruiting successful businesswomen and men to offer advice to women setting up their own businesses in the developing world.'

It is vital that women - and men - look beyond their own organisations and societies and help in the fight to lift barriers blocking women across the world. In many places, women are still denied the most basic human rights with terrible impact on their families, communities and economies. Everyone gains if we can move towards true equality of opportunity. As Hillary Clinton has said, the failure to make the most of the potential of women is the last great impediment to universal progress.

One of the other speakers taking part at the event was Janine Lee Shepherd. She was a champion Australian Cross -Country skier until she suffered major injuries when hit by a truck during training. Before the accident, she had a strong chance to win Australia's first ever medal at the Winter Olympics. Though she was told she would never walk again or have children, and doctors had significant doubts as to whether she would survive at all, she defied all of these. Over the next few years, Shepherd began to go through the slow rehabilitation process and was ultimately able to walk again, albeit with a slight limp, she also now has three children. She gained her pilots license within a year of the accident, and went on to gain an instructor's license, eventually becoming a trained aerobatics flying instructor. She also became the first female director of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. Cherie found Janine's talk and the whole event an inspiration.