FT Magazine, 10 December 2010
I hope that the world will open up for women and enable them to fulfil their potential wherever they happen to be born.
Who have been your mentors?
My first role model, you will not be surprised to know, was a woman lawyer, Rose Heilbron QC, who in 1949 was not only the first woman ever appointed a QC but, like me, was from Liverpool. As for mentors, most of mine have been men, because there were very few women in a position to mentor me when I first became a lawyer. Without the help of a number of male QCs who were prepared to recommend me to their solicitors and clients, and to bring me into their cases, I would never have become a QC myself.
How important are mentors and role models for young women?
Very important, as women who have set up their own business often feel isolated and are not always able to get the advice they need. That is why one of the main programmes of the foundation I have set up is mentoring young women entrepreneurs in the Middle East and in South Asia, using an e-mentoring platform, co-developed with Google. This platform allows mutual learning and exchange between professional senior mentors and mentees who are at the beginning of their careers, looking for practical help and support.
Does the glass ceiling still exist?
Absolutely, but it’s splintering each year. One of the real problems is building up the cohort just beneath the highest levels so that there are sufficient women with talent and experience to reach the top. This does require a concerted effort by companies and by society to change some of the assumptions and working practices that obstruct women’s rise. These include not just mentoring women but championing them; ensuring that there are sufficient ways back on to the promotion ladder for women after maternity leave, and a real advance in flexible working to the benefit of all employees, men and women alike.
What are the biggest barriers to success for women in Britain today?
In most developed countries, women face similar barriers - lack of confidence, lack of opportunity and lack of access to private sector credit, as well as problems with childcare and few support networks where they work. All these hamper their ability to succeed beyond middle management. There’s no reason in terms of ability and educational achievement why only 12 per cent of directors of FTSE 100 companies are women, and even less, around 7 per cent, for FTSE 250 companies. We’re moving in the right direction but very slowly, so it’s not surprising we’re ranked only 14 in terms of women’s economic opportunity among the wealthier countries.
And for women in the developing world?
They face some of the same barriers, but huge additional ones. A lot are to do with poverty, or with the fact that women are often seen as second-class citizens - so they struggle to get access to healthcare and education, and are often unable to participate in either political or economic life. Added to that, the legal system frequently discriminates against women - especially with regard to property and inheritance rights - which affects their ability to get credit, as they can’t produce the collateral required by banks. That’s why financial inclusion is so important.
Have the past 10 years been positive for women’s rights?
Yes, we’ve seen progress, not least because these issues are debated more and because research consistently shows that investing in women is the best return for any family, let alone business or nation. Men are far less likely than women to invest their income back into their families, which means that it’s women who, given the opportunity, are more likely to drive up educational and health standards and to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.
What were your biggest challenges over the past 10 years?
Living in Downing Street was a privilege but also a huge challenge.
I had to combat the widespread assumption that just because my husband had changed his job I would have to give up mine, and more generally I had to find enough time and energy to juggle being a mother, the spouse of the prime minister and a practising lawyer all at the same time, while often feeling that I wasn’t doing anything particularly well.
What has been the defining moment for you personally?
Seeing my mother struggle as a single parent when I was a child and making huge sacrifices to ensure that my sister and I had the opportunity to get the education and career breaks that were denied to her.
What achievements are you most proud of?
My four children.
What have you learnt from living in the public eye?
When in doubt keep your mouth shut!
Are you a feminist?
Yes, of course; how could I not be when I think of how far we have come in the UK and yet how far we still have to go all over the world to achieve equal life chances for all women?
What is your biggest hope for women over the next 10 years?
That the world will open up for them and enable them to fulfil their potential wherever they happen to be born.
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