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Cherie Blair

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Speech at the Women 1st Launch Event

Lanesborough Hotel London 13th October 2009

The promotion of women to a rightful place of equality in the labour market is no kind of positive discrimination but a sensible choice, to utilise the skills that women possess is a win-win situation for all concerned.

The Women 1st Initiative which People 1st are launching today is so important and so timely, it is a delight for me to be here speaking with you.

There are many things I could say about the work of this organisation.

But what springs immediately to mind is that they are taking up with real vigour a set of crucial issues that so many are aware of, yet so few are working to address.

Their goals, to address the imbalances at the top of the Hospitality, Leisure, Travel and Tourism sector through building networks of mentors and role models for women is a topic particularly close to my own heart and the work of my Foundation, but more on that later.

As a professional woman and as a human rights lawyer who has fought hard to champion the rights of women in the work place, I am all too familiar with the barriers that we must break down in order to achieve the senior roles men take for granted.

Indeed my own experiences on entering the world of work, when recounted today seem like something from the 1870’s rather than the 1970’s.

When I was called to the bar in 1976, it was the first time in history that the proportion of women entering my profession had crept, ever so slightly, above 10%.

Of course in those days the problem was not just that women were kept out of the top jobs, but that they were actively discouraged from joining the profession at all.

Today this defies belief, but one of the legal textbooks which I studied throughout my education warned women of the extra difficulties our gender would cause us in the court room.

“Practice at the Bar” we were told “is a demanding task for a man; and it is even more difficult for a woman.”

“It is not easy for a young man to get up and face the court; many women find it harder still. A woman’s voice does not carry as well as a man’s”

This, by the way, was the 1973, not the 1903 edition.

You may find it even harder to believe the discrimination my fellow female graduates and I faced when applying for jobs after finishing our training.

“We don’t take on women” or even worse “We have already got a woman, thank you” are two of the more scandalous answers we received.

Let me tell you that this is something I can laugh about now, but at the time it was one of the injustices that motivated me to focus my career on Human Rights law and discrimination cases.

These kind of galling prejudices are something which, although less common in our society, are still a huge barrier to women reaching the levels that their skill and ambition justifies, and sadly your industry is by no means immune.
I was disappointed, but sadly not shocked, to read some of the statistics around which Women 1st is framing its work to improve the representation of women at the highest level in the industry.

• In hospitality, the number of women working in any management role actually fell by 3% in the last three years.
• Less than 6% of the sector’s boards are female.
• A third of working mothers move down the career ladder after having children and 21% change employer within 9 months of returning to work.

Statistics of this nature have sadly been the reality of working life for women for too long.

Although these facts receive less coverage than the gender pay gap, they are just as damaging to the opportunities and rewards that the hard work of women in this sector deserve.

Women, in your industry support and create jobs and help spread prosperity across every region of the country and indeed, the world.

And it is not just the scale and global reach of your business but what you do which makes you so essential to our national life.

For few industries are as crucial to our health and happiness. It may be hard work for you but your efforts help everyone else to relax and recuperate.

Thanks to your efforts, some of the more remote communities around the world - and within the UK itself - have the employment opportunities, income and the funds to protect what makes them special in the first place.

Your sector, and the dedication and hard work it requires is one with which I have a familiarity stretching back many years:

My mother worked in the travel industry for the best part of 30 years first in Liverpool and later in Oxford where she ran the Co-op travel office.

And, of course, it is a job which had its privileges for her children.
For then - as I presume now - travel companies were keen for the people promoting their holidays to see for themselves the destinations they were advising others to try.

It was, of course, a very different business back in the sixties with the holiday package industry just beginning to take off.

So my first taste of foreign travel when I was 12 was by coach to what was then a little fishing village of Calella on the Costa Brava.

After years of paddling in the Mersey, it was also the first time I ever realised that it was possible to swim and be warm.

Given that we are talking about the sixties, I still find it astonishing that after a holiday in Italy, the next trip with my mum was to Romania.

Thousands of people now travel to Romania for holidays and it is a very attractive destination but in those days it was still very much behind the Iron Curtain and frankly seemed like it.

We flew to Bucharest and travelled on to what was then a rather gloomy resort on the Black Sea.

To be honest, I am not sure that the impact it left on my mother was quite what the travel company hoped when they offered her the trip.

But those early opportunities to see new places and how others lived gave me a love of travel which remains me with me until this day.

Of course, we can now easily visit places which virtually needed a full scale expedition only a couple of decades ago.

It doesn’t mean that travelling is always easier.

As someone quipped, “If God had really intended us to fly, he'd make it easier to get to the airport.”

But despite the lovely memories my mother’s career gave to me, her story was one which is all too familiar today. She was a highly skilled, driven and professional woman, who found it impossible to rise above a certain level in her organisation.

Because, despite the fact she was obviously good at her job, it was her responsibility for many years to pass on her knowledge and experience to a succession of inexperienced - but exclusively male - assistant managers who were then promoted over her.

This, of course, was not isolated to the travel industry but was a widespread attitude.

We have, I am happy to say, come a long way since then.

But while such overt prejudice largely belongs to the past, there are still informal barriers which stop women making it to the top.

We need to get away from the idea, for instance, that if you have not been spotted for promotion to senior positions by the late 20s or 30s; you are unlikely to get to the top.

This sort of timescale, of course, puts women at a disadvantage, as this is the age when they are likely to be having children.

But it also makes little business or HR sense when this generation, whether they like it or not, are likely to be working until they are 70 - in fact for another 40 years.

We also have to get out of the idea that working part-time is somehow showing lack of commitment to the job.

As a female lawyer and mother said to me: “if my employer could see the effort I put in before I get to work, they would never doubt my commitment”

And, of course, in today’s global business world - and particularly in an industry like yours - we are all 24-hours a day operations. So everyone is actually part-time.

It is not always easy, I know. I didn’t take maternity leave with my three older children.

I was determined to take on the men at their own game. I thought I was somehow beating the system. Looking back I was simply reinforcing it.

However, I believe these challenges have in the main made us stronger, and we should never lose sight of the changes that we have made. We should remain focussed on our ability to change the dynamic upon which these prejudices are built.

Drawing on my own experiences I can tell you of the great effort I expended to take control of my role as the wife of the leader of the country.

By the time Tony and I moved to Downing Street I had already established a successful career of my own, and this, I am afraid to say, did not sit comfortably with the role of the PM’s wife as perceived by the civil servants in Whitehall.

But while I was certainly happy to support Tony from behind the scenes, I saw no reason why I should sacrifice my hard-won career at the same time.

That’s why I continued to take on the same cases as a barrister that I would have taken if I had not been married to the Prime Minister, in other words I continued to follow what’s known as the cab rank rule.

This rule means that a barrister cannot turn down work if it’s in their area of expertise, regardless of what we might personally feel about the issue.

So sometimes I took on cases where I was arguing against my husband’s government. These were invariably portrayed in the media as me “embarrassing” my husband. I felt it was the only way I could retain my professional integrity.

But let me return to travel.
Interestingly, it was through many of my overseas visits that I realised that I could use my position to draw attention to crucial issues and craft a role that would be of real benefit to many important causes.

And, although I certainly enjoyed some of the glamorous occasions which came with being married to the Prime Minister, it has been the most heart breaking visits which have stayed with me.

It has been a constant inspiration to me to see how, when given a chance and a little hope; people grab it with both hands.

It is hard to think of a country which has suffered more than Rwanda in modern times where close to a million people were massacred in just 100 days in the most horrific ethnic violence.

Not surprisingly, the wounds are still very raw. But thanks to the extraordinary efforts of its people - and particularly its women - they are busy building a new life for their families.

I have now been three or four times. It is, by the way, an extraordinarily spectacular country - one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited - with the most welcoming people.

It is not there yet but I would not be surprised - as people continue to look for new places to visit - if before too long, Rwanda becomes a holiday destination for the adventurous- so there’s a tip for you!

And certainly responsible tourism: the kind of tourism all of you in this hall represent; which puts the interests of the local community centre-stage, will be vital for Rwanda’s continued progress.

As I look around the faces in this room, I see many driven people who I am sure will be at the fore front of the development of this exciting industry.

Both in terms of promoting new, sustainable and environmentally sound tourism, and when it comes ensuring that as we move forward, women attain their rightful place of equality in the highest levels of the industry.

Ultimately we must not seek to ignore the differences between men and women, but to make the most of our differences and in turn our unique strengths.

If you can get this right, and if you can help tackle the obstacles to equality of opportunity at work through your leadership and example, the winners will not just be women. It will be your companies.

But today’s reality, is that women begin their career journeys at a disadvantage to men who possess the same and often lesser levels of skill and professional dexterity.

For example I don’t mind telling you that I out-scored my husband in our national law exam, only to find job opportunities less forth coming.
Luckily he decided to pursue a change of career some years later!

My point is this. The status quo is hard to break down and can often seem overwhelming. Statistics like the ones I highlighted earlier may make the situation seem hopeless. But we must never lose sight of the progress women have made and will continue to make.

This is why the Women 1st programme is so important. I am greatly encouraged by the aims of ‘Step Up’ and the work you are doing to help women meet their potential through your ‘Leadership Network Mentoring Programme’.

My own experience is that this kind of mentoring is absolutely crucial to encourage women in the Developing World to take those first steps towards becoming economically active.

Programmes of this kind are of such importance because it provides the kind of long term support we all need when setting up a business or entering an new profession.

I've recently set up a charity, whose aim is to promote the financial and economic independence of women, particularly in those countries where they have few rights and very few opportunities.

What I'm talking about is women being helped to own and run their own businesses. Having economic independence is vital not just for women themselves, but for the health, strength and prosperity of their communities and societies. And the tourism industry does provide many opportunities for women to shine, particularly in Palestine and Israel where we are concentrating our first projects.

I was personally aware of the pressure of being the first person in my family to have the chance to attend university, and all the added pressure that came with it; however this is nothing when compared to the pressure that must face the first women in a whole community to set out and try and achieve economic independence. It is this kind of initial obstacle which I hope to help women overcome.

Everyone gains if the barriers holding women back are removed. And that’s particularly true if women get the chance to fulfil their talents and ambitions economically.

Because as recent studies have shown, and the mothers among you will already know from experience, women return on average 90% of their earnings into their families, but men only 30%.

It’s not just the extra income that this generates for women and their families. Greater economic security and independence gives women more control over their lives and a more influential voice in their communities. And no society can thrive fully by writing off the talents of half their population.

It’s why helping women to make the most of their economic potential is vital in tackling global poverty and inequality. It’s something already recognised by some powerful global institutions who are working hard to give women the opportunity to thrive.

We in this room all understand that the promotion of women to a rightful place of equality in the labour market is no kind of positive discrimination but a sensible choice, to utilise the skills that women possess is a win-win situation for all concerned.

And on that note it is my real pleasure to commend the work of Women 1st as an important step towards achieving these goals.